Bibliography on Woodblock Printmaking

Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, Helen Merritt (University of Hawaii Press, 1990, ISDN 0-8248-1200-X.)

Reviewed by Ray Esposito

Today I want to recommend a special book and do so strongly.

Do not let the title fool you. The author has written a wonderfully readable history. It is not just about today's artists. In fact, it says little about them. Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing to the '50s, the book continually links back to ukiyo-e. There are hundreds of wonderful tidbits in this story of how prints became an accepted art form in Japan.

We all know prints have been produced in Japan for hundreds of years but were always considered just reproductions, not fine art. I did not know it was only beginning around 1904 that modern printmaking got a foothold. It took many additional years for it to be accepted. That story is fascinating. And costly. In early 20th century militaristic Japan, printmakers paid with their lives for their art.

One item I found fascinating was a paragraph on the baren, in which the author describes a very large print Rapids (1928) by Yoshida Hiroshi:

"To print blocks for such a large piece two men rubbed with baren simultaneously. This required such strength and exertion that two competent printers could not make more than five impressions without great fatigue. If the printers rested to recuperate, however, the paper dried and shrank, making accurate registration impossible. Yoshida therefore used four printers who worked in teams, each team making five impressions while the other rested."

And YOU thought you had problems with the baren. By the way - only fifty copies of Rapids were printed and Yoshida lost money.

Speaking of censorship, a show in 1916, as all shows, had to have police approval. Merritt writes:

"One picture appeared unfinished to the (police) inspector. Then he recalled that these pictures were called hanga. Since the word can mean printed-picture or half-picture, depending on the character used, the inspector surmised that the word hanga must refer to pictures that were only half-finished. Considering it improper to exhibit a half-finished picture, he ordered the hanga off the wall. He even went to the artist's house and confiscated the blocks."

Can you imagine the FBI coming to your home for your blocks? Then again....

My only complaint is that Merritt, except for Yamaguchi Gen, does not recognize my favorite modern Japanese artists; but you can't have everything. She spends a lot of time, and justifiably so, on the fathers of the Japanese creative print movement (sosaku-hanga) Yamamoto Kanae and Onchi Koshiro who are considered the nurturing parents of modern printmaking in Japan. Onchi was the inspiration and mentor to many of today's Japanese printmakers.

Finally, permit me to quote from Chapter One - Heritage:

"Arthur Davidson Ficke, commenting on ukiyo-e, the prints of the Edo period (1610-1868), wrote in 1915 that the art of woodblock was dead. 'It is idle to hope,' he said, 'that real vitality will ever return to animate this lost art'.

"The art of ukiyo-e was dead. But the art of woodblock was simple dormant, gathering strength like a wintering bulb ...

"Early modern prints fall naturally into groups: those that reflect deliberate intentions to perpetuate Japanese traditions, and those that were made by artists who embraced the art of the west ... Works in the first category are called shin-hanga, literally, new prints ... Works in the second category were called sosaku-hanga, or creative prints."

I guess you can tell I am excited about this book. It is a fascinating look at printmaking in Japan and all of its movements, ups and downs, trials and tribulations and participants. If you want to read a great history of Japanese prints and a good read, this is THE book. One thing I really liked is that it was easy reading even with all of the Japanese names.

I hope you weren't too bored with this book review.

Ray Esposito


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