Friday, 13 May 2011

Looking at Prints - Two Women and a Dog by Utagawa Toyohiro

What can we tell of this brush drawing by Toyohiro? The drawing tells us a great deal about the process of Japanese woodblock printing and raises questions which everyone has about authenticity and process.

This drawing is from the early 1800’s by the highly sought after woodblock artist Utagawa Toyohiro. It shows two women in front of Mount Fuji; a dog in its exuberance has knocked the right hand lady off her feet and her hair pins and pipe have gone flying. It is possible that there is some coded sexual meaning in the scene but it is difficult to say for sure since there appears to be no record of the print for which this drawing should have been a preparation. It is an astonishing tour-de-force, drawn freehand and with brushes, the lines exuding confidence and delicacy. The piece is in the archaic manner, sitting between the early style of the Utagawa School and the eighteenth century mannerism of Utamaro.

But how can we be sure that this is by the hand of the great artist himself? We can’t is the short answer. This uncertainty underpins the issue of authenticity across the whole genre of Japanese art, which is in a wholly different tradition to western art of the last two hundred years. We in the west place a heavy emphasis on romantic notions of originality, of genius, of individualism and of authenticity. This is less the case in the tradition of Japanese art where there was no corresponding Romantic Revolution propelling individuals to the status of men touched by God.

Of originality, we can clearly see in so many woodblock prints the wholesale copying of scenes, landscapes, styles etc from one artist to another, something abhored here in the west. Even artists' names become endlessly conferred from studio to studio as in kabuki theatre; individuals would take either the entire name of their teacher or syllables from two teachers to construct a new title... for example Kunisada I, Kunisada II, Kunisada III or Kunitoshi and so on. Established artists ran informal studios with apprentice artists coming and going and these apprentices were likely to become closely involved in the production of prints, as were the printing studios whose job it was to interpret the original drawing for the process of printing.

Let’s take a look at the whole process. The artists, in this case Toyohiro would produce a master drawing in black ink using brushes. A skilled assistant called a hikko would then trace the original drawing several times and these would then go back to the artist for approval. This tracing (called a hanshita) would then be subject to corrections. What is fascinating about this Toyohiro is the correction in the face of the right hand figure. This suggests that the drawing is either an original which Toyohiro has corrected himself or else a hanshita that he has corrected after its creation but prior to printing. Either way one can be fairly certain that this drawing is by the hand of Utagawa Toyohiro at least in part.

It’s not possible to say why this piece has survived since the next part of the process is for the hanshita to be glued face down to a wooden block and the areas of white paper and the wood beneath to be carved away leaving the black lines in relief. The washi paper of this piece is nearly transparent to facilitate this process. The carved block would then have been inked and several black line sheets (kyogo-zuri) were printed and then passed back to the artist for approval. Each of these proofs were then in turn pasted onto blocks and each separate colour block carved from these. Finally the edition of prints was manufactured, each print using several blocks, some printed several times to increase depth of colour or else brushed in gradations of colour to produce different, graded effects.

I would conclude that this drawing is probably a hanshita which has been corrected in person by Utagawa Toyohiro but then abandoned. For the western obsession with authenticity this is quite important since at least the artist’s hand has had direct contact with the work which is oddly more than can be said for the subsequent prints. For some reason, these pieces do not attract the attention that they deserve despite being (in western terms) more original. In the end though this is a superb and exquisite drawing more than two hundred years old, unique, original and breathtakingly beautiful.

The drawing Two Women and a Dog by Utagawa Toyohiro will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, A Century of Women, from the 27th May 2011. The drawing is priced at £360.

A superb explanatory film of the woodblock process is available here, courtesy of