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Colour Block Prints

H. Hesketh Hubbard





To-day, not only in Japan, but in the United States and most European countries and the British Colonies, colour block prints of considerable interest are being produced, though in many cases the European tradition of chiaroscuro and the Japanese convention of notan or local colour are hopelessly confused.



I have great faith in the colour block print, but I do not believe a true revival has begun yet. Let us try to learn from history what is needed for such a revival.

To what was the extraordinary popularity and vitality of the Japanese colour print and the European chiaroscuro print due?

  1. The best artists designed them.
  2. There existed a native school of engravers. Wood-engraving was a trade with its traditions.
  3. There were available artisans capable of printing blocks for others.
  4. The artist catered for an immense public. He thought in thousands; he sold his prints for a few pence.
  5. The artist met a need. He realised the value of subject-matter and linked his work to the interests of his public.
  6. There was a highly-organised system of distributing prints.
  7. The amateur confined himself chiefly to producing surimono, in Japan, for private publication. The amateur in this craft seems not to have existed in Europe. The market was free for the professional.
  8. There was no photographic rivalry.

How does this compare with present-day conditions?

  1. Still only comparatively few of the best artists are designing colour block prints. There is a great dearth of figure artists designing.
  2. The so-called revival of wood-engraving in this country started just too late after wood-engraving ceased to be a trade. It still is not a flourishing trade.
  3. Though there are copperplate printers who can print an etching for an etcher there are no colour wood block printers to whom a designer can entrust his blocks for hand printing.
  4. The colour block print maker of today as a rule produces a colour print of some subject that appeals to him for some aesthetic or technical reason, but often is of no interest to the average person. He thinks in terms of limited editions of 30 or 50, trying to give his work the false, enhanced value of rarity. He caters for the connoisseur rather than the man in the street.
  5. The colour block print maker of to-day so often does not study the needs of his public. He is superior in his attitude towards them.
  6. The method of selling colour prints (at least in this country) is still hopelessly archaic. If the fine art trade is incapable of organising it better, why not let the bookseller handle it ? The mere sending of an occasional colour print to an exhibition in the hope of selling it would make Masanobu or Lucas Cranach laugh.
  7. As block printing is now taught in most elementary, secondary and art schools the result is an enormous number of amateur colour block print makers producing indifferent work and bringing down the standard.
  8. The early chiaroscuro prints were mostly reproductions of famous pictures which are procurable now in facsimile thanks to the camera. The actor prints of Sharaku were bought primarily because they were likenesses, not because of their lovely colour and design.

It is easy to be destructive and cynical. But what is necessary for a real revival of the colour block print?

We must banish the idea that the same man must design, cut and print his blocks. I do not say that the print designer should not be able to cut and print his blocks, for he will never be a good designer if he does not understand the process. But the man who designs a wall paper is not asked to prepare the blocks and print it. If Utamaro and Burgkmair had spent their time cutting and printing their own blocks it is doubtful whether their prints would have been any better, but it is certain we should have been denied many superb designs, because there are only 24 hours to an artist's day. The Japanese were right to give all the credit to the designer, for to every hundred who can learn to cut a facsimile block or print it there is only one who can design well. So let us concentrate in our schools on training a generation of competent engravers and printers. The crafts of engraving and printing can be taught; I am beginning to wonder whether design can.

There are in London to-day two societies of artists interested exclusively in the exhibition of colour woodcuts. I have been associated with both, and they are excellent in offering facilities to exhibit to a small coterie the products of one's workshop. They introduce one's work to the critics. But if the designer of colour block prints relied for his living on the sale of his work through such channels his life would be a short one unless he were capable of long and frequent fasts.

Why has no one started a society of which the membership is composed, not only of colour print designers but of journeymen engravers and those who specialise in colour block printing? Such a society or guild could publish its members' work and be independent of Bond Street.

Another thing that to my mind is impeding any real revival to this craft is the overvaluation by an artist of his work. Some colour block print makers to-day are asking their guineas for abstract designs, quite pleasant in colour, but in no way superior in design, and often very inferior in printing, to a leaf torn from a wallpaper sample book.

'Revival' means restoration to life, 'restoration of force.' To revive or reanimate the craft of the colour block print the designer needs to place his finger on the public's pulse. We shut ourselves up in our studios too long; through lack of commissions we set ourselves aesthetic problems only interesting to ourselves. Too often we sneer at subject-matter. The great artists in the past were mostly propagandists - which did not prevent them at the same time producing masterpieces of design and colour.

Block printing at the moment lacks good figure designers. The public will never scramble for colour prints of tumble-down cottages or abstract designs. But a semicaricature of a cup final hero, produced in two or three colours like Nicholson's celebrities, and sold for a copper or two on the field as souvenirs, might make a fortune for an artist. Most art revivalists in recent years have started at the top, producing for the well-to-do. I would like to see the equivalent of the old German 'helgen' and other souvenir pieces sold in Woolworth's and on the kerbstone. I would like to see the pictorial wallpaper restored. But it seems to me the colour block print designer should join hands with the most popular art of the moment. Think what a lovely series of chiaroscuro prints could be made of 'Richard of Bordeaux' or 'Twelfth Night' as it was produced recently in monochrome. And if the colour block print designer could only catch the eye of the incalculable host of cinema patrons the craft of the colour block print indeed would be revived to the live thing it was in eighteenth century Japan.

Let us never forget that the raison d'etre of a print is not to be printed once, not to be duplicated, but to be multiplied. It was not the connoisseur who patronised the makers of helgen or the Japanese colour prints. Colour block prints are not meant primarily for museums and the solander boxes of the dilettanti; they are meant for the homes of the people. Any revival that does not cater for them is a mere hot-house growth, likely to wither quickly. I believe that only by wedding the craft of the colour block print to the interests of the public can we hope for a revival that is a revival - a rekindling of life in an old and honourable craft.


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