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Japanese Prints Are Spirit Or Mood Pictures



When Admiral Perry opened the ports of Japan he scattered Japanese prints over the Western world. James McNeill Whistler strung muslin curtains over his windows to diffuse the light and avoid strong shadows, and using strong repeating lines put kimonoed women, fans and flowers in his paintings.

For Japanese prints are without shadows, highlights, depth or Western perspective. (Japanese perspective sets the distant object higher in the picture). They are the soul, mood, character, essence, dominant life and action of things seen, not photographs or copies.

When girls pick cherry blossoms in the wind you catch the mood of wind sweeping the tree branches, the torn blossoms, the billowing kimonos. You feel the dreamy mood of the girl looking at the moon, or the idle amusement of the young girl playing with her kitten. You see the isolation, sophistication, statuesque grace of the courtesan, or her languorous sensuality.

The reach of giant sea waves, the threat of the down-swooping eagle, the hurry of people crossing a bridge in a driving rain, the peace of the homing geese at twilight, the velvety softness of snow - all were caught in the carved lines on a wood block and made in printed pictures for the people.

True, women's faces were standardized, impassive, drawn between profile and full, with no character or personal beauty. These were brought out in the body pose, droop of the head, flower-like hands, richness of costume, and lines of the garment. Only the actors' faces showed tragedy, greed, jealousy, threat, placidity, or nobility of character through their eyes, lips and faces.

Japanese Prints Picture the People's Lives

Ionasa Matabei broke with the sacred rules and rigid formalism of the nobility's art schools and began painting the contemporary lives of the people. This was called the Ukiyoye school of art. The wood block print was a branch of it. The prints started about the time America began to be settled and lasted till our Civil war.

Japanese people were portrayed - the wrestlers, actors, dancers, tea house women, courtesans, fan sellers and fishermen, the young girl, young man, mother and child. Amusements of the people were shown including boating parties, cherry blossom festivals and pilgrimages to sacred temples. Favorite scenery displayed swirling rivers, rugged cliffs, placid bays, majestic mountains (the favorite Fuji), mighty sea waves, flowering trees and plants, birds and animals.

Moronobu, father of the Japanese print, developed wood block printing to highly decorative designs in black and white. His Amazons Riding is a fairy story picture of fancifully costumed women on handsomely draped horses.

Tori Kiyomoto, actor, started the Torii school of actor prints. His son, Kiyonobu, pictured actors in characters the people adored. Kiyomitsu wood blocked his actors in swirling curves and bold lines, touching in blue, yellow and tan for "tan-ye" prints.

Today Shunsho's fierce and tragic actors or his delicate female imitators (all Japanese actors then were male), are tops in actor prints. Sharaku's vicious, baleful character actors are unforgettable.

Rich Decorative Colors Come to Japanese Prints

Masanobu developed the use of color. He brushed bright lacquer on his prints, dusted them with gold, and powdered his background with mica, giving a "silver" background to his colored figures. He made a key-block so he could print in two colors and his delicate greens and rose pink (beni-so called beni-ye prints) are famous. He invented the pillar print, long, narrow -say 24 to 40 inches by four to six inches wide-for hanging on the wooden pillars of the houses.

Harunobu developed many-color or polychrome printing, a block for each color, though overlays produced further color tones. He was so skilful he could, by careful laying of color on the block, and by light pressing, take a transparent film of color. He also embossed prints by pressing them hard on uninked blocks. His delicate pictures of youth are much loved. Each print was fitted to many blocks to acquire all the colors. His Girl In The Wind took eight blocks. So rich and varied were his prints they were called Brocade pictures.

Kiyonaga and Utamaro, top artists, pictured Japanese women. Kiyonaga's were stately, monumental, dignified, graceful, without background, or against a landscape or garden. He often used two sheets (diptychs) or three sheets (triptychs) to show his complete picture.

Utamaro, famous first for his book of insects and shells, pictured his women as languid, willowy, and later, excessively tall to accent their languidness. They have been called the most sensuous feminine women in all art.

Seascapes and Landscapes in Japanese Prints

Hokusai, who called himself the "old man mad about painting" was a master artist. Some say his colors are heavy. None say his pictures lack power. His Thirty-six Views of Fuji show that sacred mountain in mist, storm, clouds or sunshine, in foreground or background. His Wave, pulling the boat of rowing men into its great arch of foaming water, is tremendously dramatic.

Hiroshige is unsurpassed by any landscape artist. His atmospheric effects of rain, mist, clouds, daybreak and dusk; the calm of his sunset waters; fragility of spring blossoms; softness of snow blanketing villages; his dark moving people, dark trees, and brilliant stars in night sky on the River at Kioto, are supreme art. His night skies are said to have inspired Whistler's.

The dark line across the top of Hiroshige's prints, blending down into his skies, balances the airy top with the heavier landscape at bottom. Also it adds depth, brightness by contrast with the light sky, and helps frame his composition. His fan prints are beautiful.

How Japanese Prints Were Made

Japanese print compositions were drawn on paper by brush and ink, then stuck face down on a cherry wood block and the paper gently rubbed off till the design showed. The wood was cut away leaving the design in ridges.

Color was put on the block with a brush so it could be laid on thin for a light film of color, or thick for heavier color. Wiping with the finger lifted off color to thin it in spots. Once the color was on, a paper -dampened to take the color better-was laid on the block and rubbed till the picture was transferred to it.

When Masanobu cut a key on the block, raising an angle at the right hand corner and a straight line at the left to fit the paper accurately, color printing began. Harunobu, master polychrome artist, used as many as 15 blocks for one print, though that might mean 30 or more impressions. For blocks were re-laid with paints in different parts of the design, or in different gradations of color (from brush or finger wiping). Printing one color over another gave many different tones of color. It is said more than a hundred impressions have been made on one print.

The first prints were for books, theater bills or festivals. Later came the long pillar prints; brocade bordered prints; tall wide prints; little prints for social occasions; single, two, three and five sheet prints; and full sized landscapes (10 by 15 inches).

Recent prints from old blocks show irregular lines from worn edges. Dipping in tea or smoke fakes old age. But an old print with the wood block's grain is a particular treasure. Soft, clear white "rice paper"; clear-edged lines; harmonious colors not overlapped at edges, draw collectors. Some want subjects, as landscapes, actor prints; some, types, as pillar prints, triptychs; some, works of all the great; others, every work of one artist.

These colorful, decorative, dramatic prints, tossed out as handbills or hung on kitchen fire screens and later enjoyed as art in modest homes, were looked down on by the nobility. Today they are collected as creative art of great power.



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