Tom on Japan

Collecting Japanese Prints – Part II

Collecting Japanese PrintsWhen you begin looking at Japanese woodblock prints it’s going to be helpful to understand how dealers organize and present their offerings. Most of the time you’ll find dealers follow one of three approaches. The first is to categorize prints by Japanese historical eras, from the late 17th/early 18th centuries up to our times. The second is to categorize by print subject matter—landscapes, “beauties,” nature or historical subjects are some examples—and the third is to list offerings by the artists (“designers”) who created them, in strict alphabetical order regardless of category.

In this article we‘ll take a look at the first historical era, which covers Japanese prints from their beginnings over 300 years ago through the mid-19th Century.

Edo Era—1603-1867

Edo (today’s Tokyo) was just a village when it was selected as the seat of government by the ruling military (Shogun) not long before the English Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Mass. (to provide a little historical perspective). As the new seat Edo became an economic powerhouse, enriching local merchants while attracting many more to this rapidly growing economy. The wealth created gave rise to leisure pursuits, including collecting—which was accommodated by the “modern” stand-alone Japanese print in the second half of the 17th Century. (Previously the main function of Japanese woodblocks was printing of entire books—both text and illustrations.) At first these prints were monochromatic (black) but before long color was added by hand, and later via the woodblocks themselves.

Edo Era Prints

You can find nice, inexpensive reprints of these very early Edo-era prints at some dealers. One reason you might want to collect a few, even aside from their artistic merit, is so you can follow the development of the Japanese print over time starting right from the beginning—within your own collection.

A representative sampling of artists you may want to know from this earlier Edo print period (1700s) are Masanobu, Harunobo, Kiyonaga, Shunso, and Koryusai. These artists produced wonderful prints showing people in a variety of settings, though not so much as real-life individuals with psychological depth. That kind of portrayal within a substantial body of work came soon afterward with the masterful prints of Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806). If you compare Utamaro’s prints with a selection from the five designers just mentioned, you’ll immediately see Utamaro’s more sophisticated treatment of people. By way of contrast, people in the others’ prints can tend to be stylized “types”. An admittedly imprecise comparison might be to Greek and Roman sculpture. Greek busts are known for their “idealized” people—heroic archetypes you seldom meet in everyday life. But often people portrayed in Roman busts are so lifelike you almost expect them to speak.

Utamaro is one of the giants of Japanese woodblock print portraiture and was an enormous influence on those who followed, right into the early 20th Century. Be sure to look up examples from his enormous output of “beauty” prints—women from many walks of life portrayed in a variety of activities, from preparing meals to having a smoke to relaxing in a boat under a bridge to diving for shellfish—to just being portrayed as themselves, dressed in kimonos of exquisite beauty and finely wrought detail.

And while we’re on the subject of portraits, be sure to look up Sharaku, a late 18th Century artist about whom little is known but who is world famous for his print designs of kabuki actors. You’ll probably recognize some of his images but not remember from where.

A general price range for early Edo-era reprints is $40 to $75. Single-panel Utamaro reprints often are in the same range but his triptych reprints (3 panel prints which provide an expansive scene) are more like $250 to $400. Sharaku reprints (single panel) generally fetch $60 to $125. If you’re interested in original prints by any of these artists, be prepared to pay a whole lot more. How much more will depend mostly on scarcity and condition, but there have been cases of individual early Edo-era prints which sold well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars—highly atypical but gives you an idea of Japanese prints’ collectibility.

Hokusai and Hiroshige

Moving well into the Edo period—the first half of the 19th Century—we come to two more giants of Japanese prints—Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) each of whom was mentioned in previous articles. They are known for their landscapes but each also worked in other genres as part of their enormous lifetime print output, which consisted of many thousands of print designs. It’s probably safe to say that their work (along with the Sharaku kabuki actor prints mentioned above) are the most recognizable Japanese prints worldwide.

And it’s no wonder. As is true of the great Western artists their work is more than just wonderful art, though it’s certainly that. Their many landscape series, as well as seascapes, re-create the captivating natural beauty of 19th Century Japan—along with its people and their day to day activities, modes of dress, class structure—even their residential and commercial buildings—all before Westernization took hold later that Century.

For Hokusai, look up his “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” (really 46 views, the publisher added 10 to the initial 36). Take a look at “Red Fuji” in particular, a spectacular depiction of nature and one of the most striking Japanese print designs you’ll ever see. Same for Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” the most famous and immediately recognizable Japanese print ever, and a world-class contribution to art which illustrates the eternal struggle of humankind with nature. Both prints are part of this Hokusai series.

For Hiroshige, check out his “53 Stations of the Tokaido,” mentioned in an earlier article. Like Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” this series is iconic in the Japanese woodblock print genre. The breadth of scenes and scenery in this series are, well, breathtaking. For a 21st Century Westerner this series is a leap into the world of Japanese life almost 200 years ago. You’ll know exactly what I mean when you start browsing through these prints. The Tokaido, by the way, was a route connecting Edo (now Tokyo), seat of the shogunate government, to Kyoto, home of Japan’s emperors for 800 years prior to founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. It was also one of five major routes throughout Japan developed by the shogunate to help secure its control over the country.

Other Edo Artists

Of course there are many other Edo-era print designers on dealer websites well worth your attention, so don’t stop with the ones we’re discussing here. One particularly interesting designer from the later Edo period is Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Kuniyoshi worked in many of the major print genres, but have a look at his samurai battle scenes—to expand the range of genres from what we’ve been discussing so far. Historical and mythological subjects in Japanese prints can be quite violent and bloody, so if you find that kind of material difficult to look at, be prepared. That said, those looking to have a comprehensive understanding of the range of Japanese print subject matter should have at least a passing familiarity with these prints. Many depict scenes central to Japanese history and literature, and have been a key component of major donations to Asian art collections in museums around the world.

Publishers and Reprints

As we’ve noted, unless you’re prepared to invest heavily in a collection you’ll probably buy more reprints than originals. First edition originals which came out during an artist’s lifetime were published by a single firm, but this was not true of most reprints, which may have had many publishers over the course of a century or more.

Each publisher hired its own wood carvers and printers to create reprints based on original prints. But since not all publishers produced equal quality work there can be something of a publisher “name” value to any particular reprint or reprint series. How could one publisher be better than another? Remember, Japanese prints were entirely hand-created, not mass-manufactured. So publishers who were fanatical about quality and could attract the best carvers and printers had a decided leg up on the competition.

Two such highly-regarded reprint publishers in the 20th Century were the Takamizawa and Adachi firms. Reprints published by either of these names can sell today at a premium to reprints by lesser-known or lesser-quality publishers, although we’re not talking about a substantial cost difference here. But Takamizawa reprints in particular may have even more name value if you find examples which were published early in the 20th Century, when the firm was founded (in 1911). Some consider Takamizawa Taisho-era reprints (1912-1926) to be among the finest reprints ever produced.

You may also find 19th Century reprints of Edo-era subjects selling at premium prices. These are sometimes known as “Meiji-era” (later 19th to early 20th Century reprints), which were a lucrative business back then due to Western demand. Japanese prints have been collected by Westerners going back nearly 200 years. By the late 19th Century so many extant originals had been snapped up by the West that there was a wonderful business opportunity in Japan for reprint publication.

Not only do these 19th Century reprints have antique, historical value but in some cases they were published by the same firm—or descendants of the same firm—which published the original, lifetime prints. Remember the Hoeido publisher original edition of Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido we discussed in an earlier article? Well, 19th-Century descendants of that firm used a combination of original blocks they had inherited—as well as altered and newly-carved blocks as necessary—to bring out a new, complete edition of this series. If you can find prints from this later Hoeido edition, consider acquiring a few. They’ll typically run a couple of hundred dollars apiece but they do have investment value where ordinary, everyday Tokaido reprints have none. And as with all antiques, there’s something to be said for holding a piece of history in your hands and dreaming of long ago.

A final point, for those who are wondering if Japanese prints, like many Western prints, are available in limited, numbered editions. Until modern times, the answer almost always is no. The Japanese didn’t think in those terms, investment-type terms. Quite the opposite. In the late 19th Century most sophisticated Japanese art lovers admired Western painting, which was created as unique, individual canvases—and looked down on their own tradition of large multi-copy print runs, which they didn’t consider as rising to the level of “art.” Of course the great irony here was the simultaneous Western love affair with Japanese woodblock prints, something the Japanese themselves were hard-pressed to understand. Just one of those little ironies of history.

In the next article we’ll continue the story of Japanese woodblock prints during an era of historic change for Japan.

© 2014 Tom Silver


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