Artist Spotlight and a Giveaway…Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print


I’ve been down and out with a bit of a stomach bug the last few days but luckily I’ve had Frederick Harris’s book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print which has been eminently digestible. Harris was a fifty year plus veteran of life in Japan, having come there after serving in the Korean War and staying on to pursue his artistic ambitions. I was lucky enough to know him through the Tokyo American Club before he passed away in 2010.

Ukiyo-e, traditional Japanese prints, have existed since before the 17th century but truly flowered during the Edo period (1603-1868). They were mass-produced and created for mass-consumption by the common man – in effect the postcards and the Instagrams of the day. A four-part team of artist, carver, printer and publisher worked together to produce these images of ‘the floating world’ – impermanent places of pleasure. Geisha and courtesans, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, were all common subjects, along with landscape series, flora and fauna and the more unusual shunga (erotic prints) and Yokohama-e (prints with foreigners). Illustrated with only the choicest selections, Harris’s book arranges them by subject rather than chronology or artist, breaking down what can be a very confusing area of work, and highlighting the key issues and players.

He neatly spells out the three great H’s of Japanese scenic prints, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui, spanning a 100 year period. I was not that familiar with Hokusai’s waterfall series which while not as famous as his Mount Fuji series, Harris believed to be his masterpieces. “They are the most contemporary of all his compositions, embracing abstract qualities that do not appear in world art until the twentieth century.” I think he has a point there! Harris highlights the dynamism of what is – in theory – a landscape print by Hiroshige by wondering where the viewer would actually have to be standing to view this Boy’s Day carp streamer. And in Hasui’s shin hanga print, designed to appeal to a Western customer, with its romantic and nostalgic views of Japan, we see a level of craftsmanship and emotional content not seen before. To really appreciate the details, be sure to click and enlarge the images.

Hokusai Hiroshige Hasui

(1) Katsushika HOKUSAI, Kirifuri Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province, c. 1832, (2) Utagawa HIROSHIGE, Sudo bridge and Surugadai, from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1856-58, (3) Kawase HASUI, Snow at Mukojima 1931

Harris is sure to include a chapter on ukiyo-e books, an area that is both dear to my heart and often overlooked. From simple but powerful sumi ink illustrations by the ‘father” of ukiyo-e, Hishikawa Moronobu, in the 1650s to delicate asymmetrical compositions from Watanabe Seitei influenced by European paintings after the turn of the 20th century, Harris’s book is full of numerous rare images from the author’s collection.

(1) Hishikawa MORONOBU, Lovers on the Veranda, c.1650, (2) Watanabe SEITEI, Seitei Kacho Gofu (Seitei's Bird and Flower Album) 1916

(1) Hishikawa MORONOBU, Lovers on the Veranda, c.1650, (2) Watanabe SEITEI, Seitei Kacho Gofu (Seitei’s Bird and Flower Album) 1916

The final chapter is on Yokohama-e, prints about foreigners in Japan and the way in which Japanese artists imagined and portrayed them. Other than the Dutch, who were kept at far arms length, Japan was effectively closed to foreigners from the 1630s until the mid 19th century, until Commodore Perry and the Treaty of Kanagawa forced the opening of the country to outsiders. By far the most interesting image for me in this chapter is Utagawa Yoshitora’s Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy Training Ground at Tsukiji from 1870. Normally a triptych (three sheet print image) I have cropped it to two for a bit of comparison. In it we see a few Western women, in quite accurate dress for 1870, watching the launch of an exciting technical invention new to Japan – the hot air balloon.

Yoshitora Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy Training Ground at Tsukiji

Utagawa YOSHITORA, Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy Training Ground at Tsukiji, 1870

Besides being fascinated by this era in Japanese history and the cross-fertilization happening, I have also had the luck to have seen and held two of the three panels of this print in my hands. Take a few moments to really examine and compare these photos and see if you can find the fascinating major differences, besides some of the obvious coloring in the dresses, between them.

Yoshitoa Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy

These images give you a real sense of the complexity of learning about and collecting ukiyo-e as many of the most popular prints went through multiple printings and sometimes continue to be printed today. Harris makes excellent points about getting educated and using your eye and common sense when buying. Remember, if it is in absolute perfect condition and a bargain, most likely it’s a modern-day reprint.

So? What did you spot? Did you notice how all the flags on the balloons were changed from Japanese flags to American flags? According to Wikipedia, the Japanese officially decreed the Nisshōki or Hinomaru (sun flag) as the national emblem in 1870, although it was already accepted as the de facto flag of Japan. The print itself is from 1870, which makes the timing quite interesting. In all the other examples of this print in museum collections around the world, the flags are American as in my example. Harris’s example is courtesy of the Mita Arts Gallery, a very respected ukiyo-e gallery in Japan. I may have to write to them and see if they have more information. What else?  The seals and stamps are quite different – if anyone’s Japanese is good enough to shed some light on them it would be very appreciated. Other small details include the stairs and walkway in the lawn in the background and the gazebo shape in the trees. I’m sure my eagle-eyed readers will spot many more!

Now on to the good part – the GIVEAWAY!! Tuttle Publishing has kindly offered 2 copies of Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print for me to offer to my readers. They will send them anywhere in the world, so everyone can enter. All you need to do is comment on this post, ideally after visiting Tuttle Publishing online and taking a look at their outstanding offerings in Art, Architecture & Design, with a real focus on Asia, and telling me what other books you’d like to see me discuss (and possibly have available for future giveaways :-))

The giveaway closes a week from tomorrow on Friday, September 19 at midnight EST. Winners will be announced the following week.

Related Posts:
Hanga 101…a Quick Primer on Japanese Prints
An Artistic Reflection…The 1860 Japanese Envoy to America and Yokohama-e
Artist Spotlight…Van Gogh: The Adventure of Becoming an Artist
Artist Spotlight…Dancers, Degas and the Demi-Monde in Yokohama
Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism
Battledores and Badminton…A History Of Hanetsuki Through Ukiyo-e
Artist Spotlight…58th CWAJ Print Show

Falling Softly…Snow Scenes in Japanese Prints

I am off to ski for a holiday weekend here, in the best powder anyone can remember for a long, long time. So, in honor of the wonderful snow here this year and the crazy snowy winter in the US, I will leave you with a series of Japanese woodblock images of snow falling. Viewed in chronological order, they give such a clear narrative of the development of the medium, changing artistic styles, and advances in print making technology. All have a marvelously realistic but magical quality to their depiction of the snowfall.

Hokusai, Fuji in Deep Snow, from 100 Views of Fuji, c. 1834

Hiroshige, Gion Shrine in Snow, from Famous Places in Kyoto, c. 1834

Hiroshige, Atagoshita and Yabu Lane from 100 Views of Edo, 1857

Kawase Hasui, Spring Snow at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, 1932

Kiyoshi Saito, Winter in Aizu, 1969

Tomikichiro Tokuriki, Snow Over Kiyomizu Temple, 1983

Masao Ido, Nanzenji in Snow, 2003

Seiji Sano, Snow Falling Softly, 2004

Keisuke Yamamoto, Kiyomizu Temple Covered with Snow, 2010

And one more I can’t help but share, even though it is not a print at all, but a photograph from a series by Yuji Obata. It took Obata five years to figure out how to photograph the snowflakes directly as they fell from the sky. For more images and information see James Danzinger’s blog, The Year In Pictures.

Yuji Obata, Homage to Wilson A. Bentley #10, 2005 - 2006

Enjoy! I hope you all get some time on the slopes this year…

For more on Japanese prints see Hanga 101…a Quick Primer on Japanese Prints.

Image credits: 1, 3-6. via Ronin Gallery, 2. via Hiroshige.org.uk, 7 & 8. 50th CWAJ Print Show Catalogue, 9 55th CWAJ Print Show Catalogue, 10.via The Year In Pictures

Artist Spotlight…Whistler, Hiroshige and the Best Coffee Table Book of All Time

Caprice in Purple and Gold No. 2 -The Golden Screen, James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1864

It doesn’t get better than this – Whistler’s mistress Joanna Hifferman in kimono, gazing at prints by Hiroshige, in front of a gilded scenic Japanese screen. Proving that Hiroshige’s work was not yet well-known in London when the painting was first exhibited, critics in 1865 didn’t understand what they were seeing – one referred to Joanna looking at “”a picture, drawing, fan or whatever it may be” – never even realizing she was looking at Japanese prints.  It was just 10 years since the opening of Japan, five years since the first visit by Japanese to the West, yet the aesthetic influence of Japan had begun, coming to the West like an unstoppable steamroller. Japonisme was the term coined for this influence and considering the other posts I have in the hopper, it looks like it will be a common theme this month.

The painting itself is a commentary on these ukiyo-e prints, with its flattened point of view and the mimicking of a traditional pose.  Whistler even designed a special frame, with kamon-like (Japanese family crests) decorations around  the edge, to extend the Japonisme effect.

For a modern-day replication of this scene, go out and pick up a vintage kimono, but more importantly, this book –  Hiroshige: 100 Views of Edo – by Melanie Trede and Lorenz Bichler. Measuring a huge 17 inches by 14 inches, it reminds me of the very funny Seinfeld episode when Kramer creates a coffee table book (about coffee tables) that has small fold out legs and is a coffee table. I think you could do that with this book. But this really is no ordinary coffee table book and the photos below do not begin to give a sense of how large and special it is! The outer binding is separate, covered in pink silk. The interior book pages also have a silky cover and look hand-stitched. It is held closed with two small toggles. The 120 images are reprints of an original set of woodblock prints belonging to the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. Each print has details and descriptions and it would be amazing to sit with a glass of wine and just absorb a few here and there.

The cover…

the interior…

and some sample pages.

It makes a perfect holiday gift for anyone interested in ukiyo-e, Japonisme or just beautiful books!!!! From a decorating point of view, this could be the lynchpin of a well styled coffee table.

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen is one of the Whistler highlights (from among a collection of 1300) at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., along with the reconstructed Peacock Room and other paintings. A definite “bucket list” item.

The Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo in Omotesando runs an ever changing series of exhibits from their huge (12,000) collection of ukiyo-e.

Image credits: 1.  Freer/Sackler Museum, 2-3. Barnes and Noble, 4-5. Taschen Books.

Tokyo Jinja

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