Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter VI

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



So far I have written at length on the complexity of the art of woodblock print making. However, the peculiarities of the Japanese method may be summed up briefly in the following few lines: the block is cut on the face of the board and not on the end; water colour is used for the pigment and any number of colours may be printed; and these must be printed on Japanese paper while it is moist. In the process the ability of the artist is revealed in the analysis, cutting and printing, and for the attainment of the aim numerous difficulties have to be surmounted.

It may be mentioned here that I have not been able to get hold of any work written by a print-artist about this art. One reason for that may be because the artist was not in a position to write about his work. There is some literature prepared by publishers for the purpose of selling prints; also some written by print lovers from their own point of view. But none from the standpoint of the artist himself, neither the cutter, nor the printer.

The essential element of the wood-block colour printing now consists of cutting, printing and analysis. The artist who is able to do all these three will be the right person to deal with the subject, to study the art so highly developed in the Edo Period, and to go on to new and better expressions of that art.

The knowledge alone of what is to be done in making colour prints is by no means enough for turning out a successful print. Knowledge, however thorough, does not produce a good print. It needs to be accompanied by art, by practice; it is necessary to master the technicalities involved.

The old masters have left us a number of unsuccessful as well as successful prints. Through these they have given us valuable hints and have left the precious results of their struggles. However, such helps are not enough; they have not satisfied all of my wants. Consequently, I have devised many new methods and ways of achieving the ends I have had in view, Of course, it is hoped that what I have been able to devise will be of some help and guidance to those who wish to engage in or to continue the work of print-making. But it is equally natural that some should find these hints inadequate for their purposes, insufficient to enable them to cope with the problems they have to face. They may find it necessary to devise still more new ways and means for their own purposes. At the same time some may find quite useless all this that I have found indispensable. These may go on without paying any attention to my findings. These two groups of people - those who find my suggestions inadequate, and those who regard them as useless - are both quite in accord with my own views: they are both in a state of mind similar to mine. They should feel quite independent and free to devise ways and means to meet their own needs. After all, it is like painting - this art of colour printing. Each artist is entitled to work in his own way.

All the technicalities may be mastered in time and one may attain to that stage where he feels that he is no longer in need of any set of rules. This feeling of not needing any more technical instruction, it must be observed, is different from the similar feeling one is likely to have before he strives with and masters technique. The latter entirely lacks technical knowledge, while the former is master of it. These technical devices may so become a part of one that they are no longer noted.

We often hear of a genius who can surmount all difficulties and achieve what is impossible for others to do. He is said to be a born artist and believed to have become a master without effort. Now I am inclined to hold that such is not the case. He too must first master all the technicalities involved in the work, though it may be comparatively easy for him to do so. He will so thoroughly master the principles involved that he will become quite unconscious of being guided by them in his technique.

Having had no definite guide, I have struggled on and by my own efforts have devised the necessary ways and means to overcome the difficulties I have been confronted with and have thus been able to develop certain fundamental technicalities and technical guides in my work. Others may be able to master all these in no time and go on still further, finding new and better ways of doing things.

Having set forth all the technical requirements in detail, what I wish to emphasize now at the conclusion is that it is absolutely necessary to master these first, whether one be a genius or not, before one can produce work worthy of a master.

The art of wood-block colour printing was developed in the Edo Period in Japan, and I have studied the products of that period as much as possible. The ukiyo-e artists of that period who were then pioneers of a new art, which was criticized as lacking in dignity, built a strong foundation for colour printmaking, and I have the greatest respect for the firm foundation so formed for this art so peculiarly Japanese. However, nothing has been farther from my wish than to attempt building on this foundation the same structure as that erected by the artists of the Edo Period. Upon this foundation I have endeavoured to build a new edifice of my own design, of my own ideals.

Looking back into the annals of the development of art in the world we cannot be too thankful for what was accomplished by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other ancients. What they achieved at the dawn of human history has contributed much to the art of all the countries on earth. Coming down nearer to our own time we see that the art of Japan early in its history was influenced by that of India, China, and Korea, and we cannot be too grateful for what we owe these countries. Thanks to our own ingenuity, our people have built on that foundation interesting structures worthy of their genius; we did not strictly bind ourselves to copy what we received from these countries; we did not lose ourselves in what we received. Therein may be found the value of the things we borrowed from abroad and the true significance of the culture our people have developed.

Presumptuous as it may seem, I feel the same way about this book, containing as it does the new devices I have tried to formulate. I should disapprove of nobody more heartily than one who merely copied what he sees, slavishly following what suggestions I have made herein and not going a step beyond or making any effort to do so. I wish that the knowledge and accomplishments I have set forth herein may serve as a foundation for others to build upon, raising their own structures which shall be in style and substance worthy of them and of the age in which they live.

Some technicalities may be so well mastered and appropriated by certain artists that they will no longer even consider matters of technique. But that does not mean that what once was valuable technical knowledge has become useless, or has even decreased in value.

Take for instance the case of the brush used in applying pigment to the blocks. All sorts of experiments have been tried with the brush until it has been found that the best brush is made of the horse's mane, and not of the tail. It was further discovered that such a brush gives better results if the tips of the hairs can be split somehow, for these are not delicate enough. Then the aid of shark-skin was invoked. The skin was curled up, and so was difficult to use. Yet necessity taught the artist that the skin could be softened by soaking it in water for a certain length of time; then it could be stretched and glued down on a piece of flat board by means of banjaku, a strong adhesive. All these details, when they were finally found out, after laborious and costly experiments, were valuable technical aids. But when once known they seem so simple and logical that they soon lose their significance as such. Nevertheless, they constitute a fund of valuable knowledge.

There is no reason why we Japanese cannot use foreign materials in our art, however old and advanced our own art may be. In the Edo Period the nation lived a secluded life; the people did not see anything beyond their own confines. So it was perfectly natural for the artists of that period to work with easily available materials and to deal with the subjects lying immediately around them. It is different today; the country is open to the rest of the world; the horizon of our ken has been widened. It is no more than natural then, is it not, that the artists of Japan today should deal with subjects other than those lying immediately at hand? I fail to see the reason why we should confine our subjects and modes of execution to those of Japan and her art alone.

Take for instance Hiroshige's "Tokaido," an admirable set of fifty-three prints. In his time the subject was alive and of keen interest; everybody travelled along the Tokaido line, and the fifty-three stations along the road, each with its local colour and the beauty of its setting, were full of lively interest to the people at large and to artists in particular. But today everything is different. There are today steam and electric trains, motor cars and aeroplanes, and hardly any one thinks of the old stations of the Tokaido line, except perhaps in the terms of Hiroshige's prints. Moreover, all the former interesting places are fast disappearing from the region. These stations are no longer closely connected with our lives. It is more than natural that our attention now should be turned to something else.

I sincerely feel that the art of colour printing has been greatly developed in Japan and that it is a peculiarly Japanese art. But there is no reason why artists of other countries should not try our method of wood-block printing; there is no reason why foreign artists should not be expected to produce worthy results. Each period in the art history of a country has a general atmosphere peculiar to it, and each race has its own characteristics. These should be revealed in the art of the period; a mere copy of things belonging to another period and race will be lifeless, and therefore should be condemned and avoided.

It is not at all natural for us to imitate the sort of pictures produced in the Edo Period, for the subjects treated there are no longer closely related to our lives. However, fortunately the art of block printing had its foundations laid most brilliantly by the masters of the Edo Period. The renaissance for the art of wood-block colour printing, which I believe is close at hand, should be based on those same foundations. It is my sincere wish that what little contribution I have been able to make toward the strengthening of those foundations, with the intent of meeting the new requirements of the new age, will prove to be of some value and will make it easier for future artists to build upon them.

I venture to hope that students of print-making, either in this country or elsewhere, may gain some useful insight into the work and thus improve their art. I sincerely hope my fellow artists may find some practical hints and suggestions in the struggles I have made and the results I have attained. I even venture to hope that art-lovers and critics may get a peep into the work connected with the production of the colour print and that what they see may be of some help in giving them a true appreciation of this particular form of art that has made such an interesting development in Japan.



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