Japanese woodblock prints

Seasons of Nature

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A friend recently gave me this Yixing-style teapot with tea bowls, glass water pot and bamboo tray. What a thing of beauty it is. So tiny you can hold the teapot in the palm of your hand.It reminds me of a print I loved from Bristol Museum’s Master of Japanese Prints ‘Life in The City’ (Okita of the Naniwaya teahouse, by Kitagawa Utamaro I) and a reminder that the third exhibition in the series ‘Masters of Japanese Prints: Nature & Seasons’ is only on for a few more weeks. I pack my notepad and camera and set off for the museum.

Spring

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The gallery welcomes me with Spring in full bloom. The walls are abundant with blossoming cherry trees and a fine sprinkle of yellow mountain roses and wisteria. Under the cherry trees people in boats are gazing up at the blossom as petals float down the river. There’s an exchange of poetry and a game of hide and seek. A courtesan is reading a letter. In the grounds of a temple, people are gathered for the annual Cherry Blossom Viewing. 

Summer

In Summer people are celebrating the festivals. Kites and lanterns. Carp streamers for Children’s Day. The meeting of a heavenly weaver and a herdsman. Peonies, Irises and Morning Glory. Summer rain, boats and fishermen on the choppy deep sea.

Autumn

Autumn brings full moons and red maple leaves. Orange persimmons and chrysanthemums. Wild geese, sweetfish and bush clover.

Winter

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As I arrive at winter, one of the prints (Parody of the Ukifune Chapter: Ferry on the Sumida River by Utagawa Hiroshige) reminds me of a song I am working on for my Winter EP. The original poem Falling Snow is by the imagist poet Amy Lowell who was inspired by Japanese prints.  

Falling Snow

The snow whispers around me 

And my wooden clogs 

Leave holes behind me in the snow. 

But no one will pass this way 

Seeking my footsteps, 

And when the temple bell rings again 

They will be covered

By Amy Lowell

A couple of years ago I produced a limited edition of letter-pressed EP covers for my other creative project Red Deer Sleeping. The music from ‘Autumn’ was set to old poems by imagist, victorian and romantic poets. The Winter songs are finally coming together so I will soon be working on another limited edition of letterpress covers for the Winter EP. In the meantime there are plenty of summer festivities to enjoy and as we move closer to September and the nights begin draw in you can listen to ‘Autumn’ songs inspired from poems of Amy Lowell, Adelaide Crapsey, Christina Rossetti and R.L Stevenson.

Netsuke - Wood Bird II

Re-carving the wood bird

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Today I make sure to take my time and carve closer to the original lines of the bird sketch.

Inking up the wood bird

 

The L shape sits up next to the woodblock to line up the paper. Paul Furneaux had given me some little markers to use for registration which I tape onto the wood. I place mine completely the opposite way round and slanting on the block and feel the frown of the ukiyo-e printers. But for me it's perfect as I want to bird to be at a slight angle and didn't accommodate for this in the initial carving.

The L shape sits up next to the woodblock to line up the paper. Paul Furneaux had given me some little markers to use for registration which I tape onto the wood. I place mine completely the opposite way round and slanting on the block and feel the frown of the ukiyo-e printers. But for me it's perfect as I want to bird to be at a slight angle and didn't accommodate for this in the initial carving.

Printing the wood bird

 

The slanted markers on a separate L Shape enable me to change the position of the printed bird. This experiment might go against the tradition of the ukiyo-e printers but exploring different methods of registration became quite common among the Sōsaku-hanga artists during the Creative Print movement.

The slanted markers on a separate L Shape enable me to change the position of the printed bird. This experiment might go against the tradition of the ukiyo-e printers but exploring different methods of registration became quite common among the Sōsaku-hanga artists during the Creative Print movement.

Many artists - Munakata, Morozumi, Kidokoro, Maki, Sasajima, to name a few - do not use registration per se because they work with monochrome prints, or they print all the colours at once, or they use colouring techniques such as resist dying after the basic monochrome image has been printed. For them it is only necessary to center the image on the paper - though the use of kentō still survives, contemporary Japanese print artists have steadily been developing their own individual approaches to to meet their particular needs.
— Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints by Gaston Petit
 
The technique...in modern prints became creative rather than technical.
— Japanese print-making: A handbook of traditional & modern techniques - Toshi Yoshida & Rei Yuki
 
Sōsaku-hanga (創作版画 “creative prints”?) was an art movement in early 20th-century Japan. It stressed the artist as the sole creator motivated by a desire for self-expression, and advocated principles of art that is “self-drawn” (自画 jiga), “self-carved” (自刻 jikoku) and “self-printed” (自刷 jizuri). As opposed to the shin-hanga (“new prints”) movement that maintained the traditional ukiyo-e collaborative system where the artist, carver, printer, and publisher engaged in division of labor, creative print artists distinguished themselves as artists creating art for art’s sake.
— Wikipedia - Sōsaku-hanga

Edinburgh - Sea Tea Textiles and Whiskey

I cycle the streets of Edinburgh in the sunshine, exploring the city starting at Peter's Yard cafe by Middle Meadow Walk for Swedish breakfast, then into the centre, up the Royal Mile hill towards Edinburgh Castle. I'm surprised by the lack of bike racks in the city as I see so many people cycling around but I eventually manage to find a lamp post and walk up the rest of the hill to Edinburgh Castle with views of the blue sea and the buzzing city, rooftops and roads and patchwork gardens. Inside the walls of the castle is St Margaret's chapel. Colourful textiles are laid over the alter representing the many qualities of the once reigning queen. It's still early and not many tourists have arrived yet so I make the most of the cool and peaceful space before exploring the rest of the castle a quick cup of tea and a taste of local whiskey. Back on the bike to The Fruit Market Gallery for lunch and 'Possibilities of the Object - Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Brazilian Art' exhibition.


In Search of Netsuke

I arrive at the National Museum of Scotland in search of Japanese netsuke. I'm directed to the Asia department which is quite tiny. They don't appear to have any netsuke. I'm sure I saw them on the website so ask the guide. He is not sure and points me in the direction of the Japanese Porcelain exhibition. Being optimistic I take a look. It's a tiny exhibition of Japanese ceramic pots from the late 1800s early 1900s but no netsuke. I continue to wander around the museum and find myself in a large room full of stuffed animals from monkeys and pandas, lions and tigers, polar bears and foxes, giraffes and deer. It's a dramatic landscape of dynamic shapes. Each animal frozen in action. I wonder where they once lived and how they died and how they came to be here. It's a curious place. This is Animal World and in the middle of this sea of animals stands a gigantic elephant with tusks as long as my own body and I'm reminded of these beautiful creatures continuing to be poached for their tusks only to be cut up for the benefit and demand of the consumer. I think about the netsuke and how many elephants were killed in the process to make these objects. Back at the information desk I speak to a member of staff to discover the gallery where the netsuke are displayed is closed as part of their redevelopment programme and won't be open until 2016.

Japanese Woodblock Prints at the National Gallery Scotland

It's easy enough to get lost on a bike round a busy city when the sea looks like a stones throw from the top of the hill. I cycle down the hill on my way to the National Gallery Scotland. Instead of turning left I continue straight down the hill towards the inviting sea and into Dublin Road. Dublin is my second home and although Edinburgh faces the North sea I can almost feel the Dublin air in my lungs as I breathe on my bike past the rows of Georgian terrace houses.

I climb back up the hill to the National Gallery. Through the revolving door and into the main gallery. It's hot and stuffy. I peel off my layers, hang my helmet round my bag. I'm surrounded by overwhelming mass of dramatic intensity. An overload of war and battle scenes. I race through the stifling crowd and head straight down the stairs for Scottish Art Gallery to be greeted by tranquility. A beautiful deep blue mountain in luscious landscape by the Scottish painter David Young Cameron. The gallery leads me away from the drama and into a quiet haven, through a dim lit peaceful corridor of Scottish landscapes. I can breathe again.

As I walk back up the stairs I notice I haven't seen any prints, only paintings. I ask at reception if there is a print room. Yes but you have to book an appointment. I am only here today and wonder if there is a possibility of seeing some Japanese woodblock prints today. The receptionist makes a call. She looks positive. Yes it's possible and she books an appointment for me in half an hour with Katrina.

The Print Room

A young woman has opened the door to reveal the print room. Katrina shows me where to write my name and address and to take a pencil and paper if I wish but "NO PENS" she says. I envisage the accidental collision of pen and paper. The pen gliding across an orange sunset, eventually making it's heavy dark eternal mark upon a delicate pink blossom tree. She pulls out a big green box from the shelves and on to the table. Inside the box are original Japanese prints. Katrina has studied Japanese woodblock prints from the Ukey-o period and is very knowledgeable as she talks me through each print. Each print is mounted between stiff cardboard with a sheet of plastic between the mount and the print. She lifts the mount and removes the sheets of plastic to reveal the tactile quality of delicate handmade Japanese paper. Most of these designs are by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The colours in the prints have faded and would have been much more intense when they were first printed. She explains how some of these prints are obviously reproductions and you can tell from the inaccuracy of the registration. But this is over ridden by the precise intricate fine detail in the carving. It's the first time I have seen original Japanese woodblock prints so closely. It's magical.

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When we have finished looking through the box of prints Katrina brings out another big green box. This time I can look through the prints by myself. I ask if I can take photos without a flash. That is fine. The prints are mountainous, watery landscapes, bridges and rivers, people walking and working in fields and towns under deep blue skies, the rain beating down on dark inky pavements. I take a photo only to find the memory is full. Maybe it is a blessing as with no camera I spend longer looking at the prints. I absorb each scene, the delicate carving, the trees, the waves, the tiny houses, the textures, the mark making, the colours overlapping, the bokashi effect. I take a break and delete some old photos from my camera. I manage to take a few photographs of the prints and make a note of the ones that really resonate.

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Shin-hanga (new prints)

I ask Katrina where all the original woodblocks are stored. She says that there aren't many left as after an edition was made, to keep the value of the prints, they would destroy the blocks. I find the wood block a piece of art in itself and I'm shocked that this was the normal procedure after spending so much time making such intricate carvings.

When I have finished looking through the second box, Katrina pulls out one more box. Inside is a huge pile of extremely delicate unmounted prints. There are many modern images (Shin-hanga) of wildlife - birds and frogs and dragonflies and it's difficult to tell which ones are ink sketches and which ones woodblock prints. Some are printed on paper as fine as tissue with holes and tears and I'm afraid to touch them incase they disintegrate. We decide to leave this box alone and I hope that someone will take time to carefully mount them so one day they can be viewed properly.

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I thank Katrina for giving me the time to explore the prints and we say goodbye. Downstairs in the main hall the sun has disappeared. Behind the great glass window panes the snow is falling reminding of the beautiful print 'Night Rain at Makura' by Hiroshige.