Standing Courtesan

As usual, our second print of the year is a 'bijin-ga', and this year we have quite a special image - one of the famous designs from the Kaigetsudo school of ukiyo-e painters. Little is known about the men of this group, and my reference books are full of contradictory theories about who they were and when they worked. Most of the work produced by the Kaigetsudo school was in the form of scroll paintings on silk or paper, but they are known to have left a couple of dozen print designs as well. This one was done by Kaigetsudo Dohan, and the best guess for a date for it is 'early 1710s'. The signature reads 'Nihon-giga Kaigetsu Matsuyo Dohan zu'.

Full-colour printing had not yet been invented at this time, and this design was issued as a 'tan-e', which means the black outlines were printed from a woodblock, with colours added later by brush. The version you see here is of course all printed, and I have used as a guide a reproduction made in the Taisho era.

In my position as a westerner living in Japan, I am able to see a print like this from the point of view of both cultures, and am always surprised about how different these views are. From the western side, opinions are easy to summarize - the Kaigetsudo prints are seen as one of the greatest achievements in ukiyo-e, and ukiyo-e itself is seen as one of the greatest achievements in all world art. On those extremely rare occasions when a Kaigetsudo print has come on the auction market, collectors have fought each other madly to buy it; these are the most coveted of all Japanese prints.

On the Japanese side, things are somewhat different - not only is the name 'Kaigetsudo' almost completely unknown, but ukiyo-e itself is not even considered to rank among the 'top' arts. That status is reserved for things like calligraphy, pottery, noh performance, and tea ceremony. The most desirable art object in Japan would perhaps be an age-old tea bowl; it could never be a woodblock print.

This attitude has mitigated somewhat in recent times; extensive praise from overseas over a period of many years has gradually lifted the status of ukiyo-e to a level where it is now accepted as an 'art' by the general population, but there is no question that such an attitude is not shared by those who consider themselves true connoisseurs of traditional Japanese culture. For these people, the idea of hanging an ukiyo-e print in their tokonoma alcove would be completely inconceivable.

I myself have a rather simplistic attitude towards such questions; I am not concerned in the slightest with the 'status' of ukiyo-e, or of my position in Japanese society. In fact, the general image here of printmaking as a 'lesser art' has worked in my favour during all the years that I have been in this country. An acquaintance of mine here in Tokyo has been studying traditional biwa performance for many years now, and when I listen to his description of the 'iemoto' system under which he must work, I realize that I am very lucky indeed to be no part of that sort of thing. Absolutely everthing he does is programmed and prescribed in advance; no deviations are allowed. He has very few chances to take part in performances, and little or no say at all in what he can perform. And of course, every step of his progress must be lubricated by plentiful amounts of money flowing 'up the ladder'. Speaking honestly, if traditional woodblock printmaking worked in the same way, I would not have lasted even a single year here in Japan.

So I am not saddened at all by the fact that the print you see here is not considered high 'art'. The phrase 'giga' in the signature on this print can be translated as 'for fun only picture', and is presumably meant to indicate a separation of this work from the artist's normal work of making paintings. He may have been willing to dabble in low-class work, but he wanted everybody to know what he thought of it!

But I like that phrase - 'for fun only picture' - and as far as I'm concerned, it might as well be on every print that I make!

May 2001