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Colour Block Prints

Hesketh Hubbard







The earliest Chinese picture woodcut that has come down to us is of a Buddhist image and is dated 868. There are others that belong to the tenth century. The earliest Japanese block print known to us, dated 1325, is the work of a priest named Ryokin, also religious in its subject, and was probably a religious souvenir like the early German 'helgen.' All these prints were black and white prints and of interest historically rather than aesthetically.



Actually the Chinese produced colour prints about three-quarters of a century before the Japanese. Some of these were in monochrome, not exactly chiaroscuro prints, for the Orientals were not interested in light and shade, but they were printed from two or three blocks, a light grey, a darker grey and black. These monochrome prints were probably reproductions of original monochrome paintings. The Chinese, however, also produced towards the end of the seventeenth century colour block prints which were designed probably as prints. Sometimes as many as nine blocks were used. The subjects were mostly flowers, birds, insects, with appropriate letterpress. Their colour was crude when compared with the later products of Japan, for the Chinese colour block print-makers had a liking for a red not unlike red writing ink, which is a difficult colour to incorporate into a subtle colour scheme. The register was often poor but they seemed to have understood all about gradation printing. Their keyblocks did not outline every colour mass.



Mendez Pinto, the Portuguese adventurer, established a trading settlement in Japan about 1542 and helped financially the Jesuit missionaries who came from Europe to Japan. Thirty-four years later so great progress had been made by the missionaries that "an embassy of four youths was sent to Rome bearing valuable presents of art work of the country" A few years later this embassy returned to Japan with a collection of all sorts of objects of Christian significance. Colonel Strange has put forward the theory that chiaroscuro prints, reproductions of famous Italian religious pictures, which were then the vogue, found a place in the baggage of this Japanese embassy. But how are we to account for the fact that no European chiaroscuro prints have been discovered in Japan, and why was it nearly 200 years before so clever a race made use of the lesson such prints could have taught them ? It may well be that the brutal persecution of Christians in Japan that followed may have led to the destruction of every imported chiaroscuro print but to the second query there seems no answer.



In 1658 Moronobu published an illustrated book. It was by no means the first Japanese illustrated book, but it is important because it was the first that has come down to us to be coloured roughly by hand with water-colour. So, also, were some of his broadsheets, probably in imitation of the cheap water-colours so popular with the general public at the time.



There is in the Victoria and Albert Museum a pattern book of designs some pages of which are printed in black, some in olive green, some in red, some in blue. This book is dated 1667. This, of course, cannot be said to be colour printing as we understand the term to-day, which implies the printing of more than one colour on a single sheet. But it is the step between the hand-coloured black and white print and polychrome printing. A range of coloured inks was available in 1667, even though the practical possibilities of their use had not yet been grasped by the nimble minds of the Japanese craftsmen.



During the Genroku Period (1688 - 1703) there was a great urge towards new modes of self-expression. The painters of the comparatively new popular school, or 'mirror of the world' artists, in opposition to the old classical schools, started to gain immense popularity by painting contemporary life. The man in the street was interested in representations of the life he knew rather than the legendary subjects chosen by the painters of the classic schools. He lived in the present, for the moment. The women were interested in broadsheets that were practically the equivalent of the fashion plate of yesterday. About 1700, Kiyonobu had produced the first single sheet print of an actor that has come down to us. It sold like hot cakes. Other actor prints were designed, cut, printed and then hawked in the streets. To meet the public demand for colour many prints were hand-coloured, particularly in yellow, crimson, yellow-green and gold. It is curious the colouring should have been so crude when done by hand and so subtle when printed in blue-green and red, as some of Kiyonobu's prints were later. The actor print was a happy inspiration, for at that time the Japanese public was as keen on its popular theatre as the British or American public to-day is keen on its cinema. Although the Japanese actor was ostracised when off the stage, to the man in the street he was almost as godlike a creature as Ronald Colman or Herbert Marshall. The great Japanese actors at the end of the seventeenth century provided subjects galore for the early print designers. They were as valuable to Moronobu and his followers as was Emma Hart to Romney or Helen to Rubens. A plebeian Japanese at the end of the seventeenth century paid his sen or two for a picture of his favourite public idol as willingly as any English film fan pays his or her penny or two for a postcard of a film star.



Another type of subject appealed enormously to the Japanese people. As far back as 1614 the Japanese were sufficiently enlightened to establish a licensed quarter at Yedo, part of a regime of orderliness and control. In Japan the fame of the courtesans or beauties was as great as the fame of any popular actress in England to-day. These courtesans were not merely physically attractive, but they were mentally fitter companions for the literary men and intelligentsia than the average wife. In 1643 women had been forbidden to appear on the stage; all female parts were played by men, not a few of whom lived as women off the stage. This ban on actresses lasted for several generations. The public must have its idols; since it was denied the glamour of the star and chorus girl, very naturally it chose the courtesan and teashop girl as the object of its worship.



It must be remembered that the invention of printing from movable type, which Gutenburg had introduced nearly zoo years before, had not penetrated to isolated Japan. Japanese books were still block books, each page of letterpress cut by hand on a separate block. Even before there were many illustrated books there was a school of very skilful wood-engravers, for to cut a page of letterpress is the supreme test of engraving.



So there was a popular school of artists seeking inspiration from contemporary life; there was a school of expert wood-engravers keeping their hands in by typecutting; there was a range of coloured inks available; there was some of the most sympathetic paper ever produced on which to print. And above all there was a public waiting to buy; not an eclectic and limited public of connoisseurs, but a great, vigorous public who wanted a cheap form of coloured picture provided the subject interested them. The stage was set.



But the curtain did not go up immediately. Nearly half a century was to pass before the colour print, as opposed to the hand-coloured print, was to appear. But during this period very useful work was done by Okumura Masanobu, not only a good artist of the popular school, but a man of many parts. It used to be thought he started life as a bookseller and then turned artist, but I believe that it is generally accepted nowadays that it was the other way round. Anyhow, when he was still a young man of about 22 he turned his bookselling business into a publishing one and published not only books but prints. Either as a publisher of books or of prints he would have to employ engravers and printers, for the Japanese colour print always has been the product of three separate men - the designer, who received all the credit and whose name is remembered, the engraver, an artisan whose name is known much less frequently, and the printer, whose status was similar to the engraver's. Masanobu seems to have been just the live wire that was needed; his experience as a seller of illustrated books gave him an insight into what the public wanted. He was an artist with a flair for organisation, and it was organisation as much as anything that the art or industry of print-making then needed. Masanobu was not the first Japanese print publisher, but he did, perhaps, more than anyone to put the trade on a sure footing. Besides this, he was a man of unusual inventiveness, which showed itself as early as 1720, when he hit upon the idea of mixing lacquer with his colours, or laying passages of lacquer on his prints and then, through .a tube, blowing powdered metals or pulverised mother-of-pearl which settled on the still sticky lacquer and added a richness to the design.



Another type of print that was popular at this time was the so-called stone print, an imitation of the rubbing that was taken (much as we take an ecclesiastical brass rubbing) from an incised design in stone - a method copied from the Chinese. The Japanese generally cut their stone prints in wood. The result, of course, was exactly the reverse to the ordinary block print, for the lines of the design appeared white not black.



Either in 1742 or 1743, curiously enough just about the time Jackson was producing in England his prints 'in their original colours,' the genuine Japanese colour print appeared. The Japanese had been held back by having no suitable device by means of which to register their blocks and they had not discovered the right vehicle with which to mix their pigments so as to ensure their lying evenly on the block, though why they could not have used what they had used already for centuries as printing ink is not clear. Masanobu generally gets the credit for the discovery that by mixing rice paste with powder colour the ideal printing ink was obtained. Some make this claim for Kiyonobu. Like the European chiaroscuro print-makers, the early Japanese colour block print-makers restricted themselves to two or three blocks; both European and Oriental designers used a key block containing the main lines of the design (usually printed in black), but whereas the European used his two remaining blocks for shading, the Japanese used his for applying quite arbitrary splashes of flat, local colour, generally green and rose. The Japanese colour print at its best is an admirable example of the happy wedding of draughtsmanship and colour. The draughtsmanship was conventional, nonrealistic, and so the colour was kept conventional. To have applied a realistic colour scheme to such conventional drawing would have been quite unsuitable.



Almost as soon as the invention of colour printing in Japan it was used not only for broadsheets but for the production of a smaller type of private print known as surimono. These prints, generally square and smaller than the broadsheets, were ordered privately. They served as New Year cards, souvenirs of family events such as a birth or marriage, invitations to some festival. The greeting, often versified, was given a prominent place in the 'design; the decoration was symbolic to the nth degree. The surimono was the particular province of the amateur, who made his own design and had it cut and printed for him. Rarely did he dabble in the production of a broadsheet and so was never a serious rival to the professional print designer. I believe the earliest known dated surimono was produced in 1750. The surimono of Hokusai, who rather specialised in this type of print, are amazing pieces of craftsmanship. The fineness of line work, the perfection of colour, the subtlety of gradation, the enrichment by means of gauffrage, leave one amazed. The surimono lent itself peculiarly to still life.



The great year in the history of Japanese colour print making is 1764, for it was in that year that polychrome printing - that is, colour printing in more than three colours - began. To whom do we owe this great step? Some say Harunobu. He certainly introduced many improvements and perfected the process ; but, personally, I am inclined to think that the engraver Kiwroki was more likely entitled to the credit, for this logical development of an already existing process was really only a problem of registration - a technical problem for the engraver or printer rather than the designer. The difference between the methods of registration introduced in 1742 and that perfected in 1764 is very obscure. But at any rate Harunobu, as one writer has said, "turned the three-stringed lute into the violin," and after his early experiments with four and five blocks, quickly increased their number to 12 or 15, and explored the almost limitless possibilities of superimposition. These new prints were known as 'brocade prints.' The public was thrilled by them, for the public always likes colour and plenty of it. The severity of a limited palette is an acquired taste; more people like ice cream than olives. In the same year that versatile man, Masanobu, died. He has been credited with the invention of colour printing in Japan, of the glue device and metallic printing, the introduction of the long pillar prints, the use of mica backgrounds, and is said to have been the first to use the white line in Japan.



But, naturally, the newly-introduced methods of producing polychrome prints did not oust at once the former methods of production, and in 1771 one of the finest Japanese books ever produced was published, its illustrations coloured by the time honoured stencil.



The next refinement of the process was devised two years later by Sekiyen, Utamaro's master, who thought of 'a method of gradation printing,' by a judicious wiping of the inked block, a device that was used in China at least three-quarters of a century before. At the time the Japanese made little use of gradation printing, but early in the next century Hokusai and Hiroshige exploited it. The introduction of gradation printing was perhaps a step towards degeneracy, as it attempted to imitate water-colour. So soon as one attempts to imitate one medium in another one is on dangerous ground.



The Dutch were the only Europeans that were allowed to trade with Japan, and their influence upon the Japanese print makers became evident when Kokan learnt from them the principles of European perspective. There is in the British Museum a print by Shiba Kokan, of no great importance aesthetically, but interesting historically. It is printed in black and ash, the seals in red, just like a Chinese monochrome print. The perspective of the buildings is European, and in the sky is a European inscription, cut laboriously in facsimile, the artist obviously not knowing what he was cutting. It is interesting to notice the difference in the handling of this European inscription and the Japanese writing - the first laboured, the second free. Kokan also tried his hand at some copperplate engravings in the European manner, coloured by hand. He dabbled in oils; he experimented with shadows. But this European influence was only another that added to the growing decadence. It is curious how when the West has influenced the East in art it has been bad for art; but when the East has influenced the West invariably it has been good. More and more prints and illustrated books of a bawdy type were published till, in 1790, there was a further tightening of the censorship of prints. The censors were drawn from the ranks of the publishers - every print and book had to be passed by the censor, who stamped it with his seal if he approved it.



About 1800 Hokusai was selling so many of his prints to the Dutch at Nagasaki that the authorities, afraid lest some of these prints might contain details of national defence, forbade him to traffic with the Dutch; but it is only reasonable to suppose that a number of Japanese prints, probably mostly by Hokusai, were sent home to Holland, and from thence slowly penetrated to other countries.



By 1825 the number of designers of colour prints had increased enormously and; as was only natural, the standard dropped. The great figure draughtsmen were dead; but there was still one more phase to manifest itself. The embargo put upon the sale of actor and courtesan prints in 1842, and kept on for 11 years, gave an impetus to the landscape print. In the Far East landscape was considered the highest form of painting. Hiroshige and, to a less extent, Hokusai, are the two artists who were responsible for the best landscape prints.

In 1853 other foreigners besides the Dutch were allowed to visit Japan. Prints from Yedo now found their way to other countries. In 1856 or 1857, when the French impressionist painter, Claude Monet, happened to be in Zaandam, he purchased from a Dutch grocer a stack of Japanese colour prints that the shopman was using as wrapping paper for butter and cheese. He took these back to Paris, where they became the rage.

About 1862, for purposes of economy, the use of more than three colours to a print was forbidden in Japan; but even this enforced limited palette, which might have been welcomed by greater artists than those that then carried on the dying tradition, could not save the art from its final degradation. Hiroshige and Hokusai were dead. The revolution in 1868 finally broke the self-imposed isolation of Japan. Ships of all nations soon were anchored in her harbours and, as often happens in countries at the dawn of a new era, they despised their native arts. So to-day, if one wants to see the finest Japanese prints, one stays in London or goes to Germany and the States rather than Japan.



It is always interesting, and often valuable, to trace the causes of the falling-off of an art. There must eventually be a falling-off, for there is in the human race an insistent desire for chance and novelty, and Nature herself does not stand still. Perfection is a limited state, and the Japanese colour print reached that state towards the end of the eighteenth century. Decay began to set in when the artists started to strain the resources of their medium in their endeavour to provide novelties for an insatiable, novelty-mad public, for only by change can public interest be held for long. This led to all sorts of mannerisms and distortions, and the drift towards realism forced the process into imitations of another medium, water-colour. In the great days there had been hardly enough artists to meet the demand; this inevitably led to the ranks of the designers rapidly being augmented, not by good designers (for there has always been a dearth of them) but by indifferent ones. The original public began to weary of the fashion, and the artists began to cater frantically for a public drawn from a lower and more ignorant stratum of society, who had little or no standards and preferred gaudy to subtle colour. Quality gave way to quantity. The few good artists who still went on working in the first half of the nineteenth century tried to produce so much that often their work was slovenly and they could not spare the time to supervise the printing. Bad colour, and finally the use of German aniline dyes, did not improve things. Faulty register was allowed to pass. Finally, when Japan awoke from her long isolation, which had enabled her to foster this school of great colour print designers, things European became the vogue. The artists, in a final frantic effort to cater for the fickle public, tried to adapt themselves to European standards.


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