Sosaku Hanga

Andy Warhol, Woodblock Prints & Netsuke - Ashmolean Museum Oxford

A few months ago a friend invited us to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to see the Andy Warhol's private collection: 'Works from the Hall Collection’ to be shown to the public for the first time. I love Andy Warhol's prolific and revolutionary work, and not long before the invitation, I had made a note of another exhibition that was showing at the Ashmolean. 'Scenes of Last Tokyo' - A collection of Japanese Creative Prints (Sosaku Hanga) from 1945. We booked a date and made the trip to the museum.


Andy Warhol

We enter the Ashmolean Museum and head for Andy Warhol. Bright vibrant pop splashed screen prints of flowers and well known celebrities adorn the walls, and in another darkened room, black and white cutting edge films in their time play on continuous loop (Empire (1964) Sleep (1963) Eat (1963), Kiss (1963) and Screen Tests (1964-65). We continue into a room of line drawings followed by a room dedicated to silk screen paintings in black and white with a religious and existential theme. And near the exit, a wall of abstract Oxidation prints made from the chemical reaction of urine and copper based paints.

Scenes of Last Tokyo

I head to the exit, down the stairs to the Asian Crossroads Orientation Gallery. Photography is not permitted here so I am unable to show these beautiful colour prints in my journal. I slowly follow the line of fifteen nostalgic views from the 'Akamon' Gate of Imperial University by Maido Masao, 'Asakusa Kwanmon' temple by Saito Kiyoshi, 'Zōjō-ji' by Yamaguchi Gen, to the 'Benkei-bashi' bridge by Senkino Jun’ichiro.

Sosaku Hanga (Creative Prints)

All fifteen woodblock prints were created by nine artists from the Japan Print Association (Nihon Hanga Kiyokai). These prints are not as precise and intricate as woodblock prints from 'Ukiyo-e Pictures of The Floating World'. The lines are loose and expressive. Perfect registration is not essential as one colour bleeds over the edge of the next. These artists would have designed, carved, and printed the blocks themselves allowing more room for exploration and creative freedom. Only twenty years later and Andy Warhol is following Ukiyo-e's traditional system of mass production, employing assistants to print his designs.

Artist's Books

Behind a glass cabinet opposite the woodblock prints lie a collection of ten print albums published by Aoi Shobō. Each book contains ten prints accompanied by poems or essays by the artists. It's a privilege to see this work and I wonder if or where it will travel to next. I make a note of the contact details for Jameel Centre for Islamic and Eastern Art study room and leave the gallery.

'Scenes of Last Tokyo' exhibition continues until 5 Jun 2016.

Tea House & Netsuke

I find my way to West meets East Orientation Gallery. As I enter the room, I encounter a similar experience when I made my first visit to the British Museum's Japanese Galleries. A spacious and serene tea house with tatami mats and paper walls welcomes me into the gallery. I continue into the gallery and find myself in Japan between 1600-1870. Japanese woodblock prints are dotted along the walls and glass cabinets display lacquer boxes. A folded screen is painted with soft yellow flowers in lush green landscape on blue sea. A carp is painted on a silk scroll. There are stoneware and earthenware ceramics, Kakiemon porcelain and a cabinet of netsuke.

Netsuke - Mouse Signed Kanō Tomokazu

A small wooden mouse with its tail curled under its grasping paws looks up at a monkey, a tiger and a bird of prey all hanging from their own seal baskets (inrō).



Since the traditional Japanese garment (Kimono) did not include pockets, other means were carried around to carry around items of daily use. This varied from using the often-capacious sleeves of the kimono, to tucking articles into breast folds. It was the sash (obi), however, which was secured around the waist and used to hold the kimono together, that became the focal point for carrying objects - various pouches, containers,or miscellaneous items , known collectively as sagemono (‘hanging things’) were suspended from the sash - most notable of these were the money pouch - smoking accessories - tobacco box, pipe and pipecase and in particular, the inrō (‘seal basket’).
— Japanese Netsuke by Julia Hutt
Netsuke - Monkey Grooming Unsigned

Netsuke - Monkey Grooming Unsigned

Netsuke - Tiger Signed Kajikawa Saku

Netsuke - Tiger Signed Kajikawa Saku

Netsuke - Bird of Prey Signed Moei (Nakaōji Moei)

Netsuke - Bird of Prey Signed Moei (Nakaōji Moei)

Netsuke donated to Ashmolean by Sir Herbert and Lady Ingram

Do What You Love

I think about the time, dedication and discipline needed to the make these tiny objects and am reminded of Motoharu Asaka's precise and intricate carvings for traditional Japanese woodblock prints. There is no doubt that spending so many years full time as an apprentice to any craft produces absolute mastery of one's discipline but what resonates for me even more is the passion and dedication to doing what you love. This is so evident in the work of Andy Warhol and the Sosaku Hanga artists who immersed themselves deeply into their passion creating such a prolific and exciting body of work.

The seeds of tomorrow’s brilliance are planted in the soil of today’s activity. If you want to do great work in five years, that begins today. As Gretchen Rubin put it, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.
— Todd Henry

We leave the museum and follow a path to the river lined with narrow boats and ducklings. The sun is still shining. We sit on a bench and watch the rowers race by.


Netsuke - Ox (& the Art of Listening)


I discovered Onbeing at the beginning of the year. I have no recollection of the thread in the web that brought me to Kristas Tippett's website but ever since I found it I am a complete fan of her heart warming inspiring interviews with poets, thinkers, speakers, makers, teachers.... from all over the globe.

I'm listening to Gordon Hempton's soundscape of nature's silence 'A Hike through the Hoh rainforest.' He takes us on a guided walk along the trail through tall tree, ferns and moss, a winter wren twittering, a river echoing of the edge of the valley and the call of a Roosevelt elk. In his conversation with Krista Tippett he talks about the art of listening.

"Listening is not about sound - If you ever find yourself listening for sound, that's diagnostically a controlled impairment. Simply listen to the place and when you listen to the place you take it ALL in - We're about to enter into a giant driftwood log -Sikta Spruce log, the material used in the crafting of violins - when the wood fibres are excited by acoustic energy -in this case its the sound of the ocean itself - the fibres actually vibrate and inside you get to listen to nature's largest violin.” Gordon Hempton - Onbeing


Shiko Munakata & Kiyoshi Saito

While I carve my second ox, I wonder where this magnolia wood was growing and how many years it stood rooted in the earth before being cut into blocks. The death of the magnolia tree. The aliveness of mark making. The transforming of tree to print. This time I leave more wood, less carving, more outline and I am more gentle as I listen to the sound of the hangito cutting into the block. I love how Shiko Munakata really listened to the wood when he was carving. He let the wood speak as there is no right and wrong, just the doing of it and the way Kiyoshi Saito, another master of the Creative Print Movement (Sosaku Hanga) embraced the texture of wood grain when printing flat bold areas of colour.

"Flat areas of colour and the texture of the woodblocks' grain communicate the essentials of the nature of bold and harmonious designs. Saito's simple style possesses great freedom and spontaneity, and there is an international avoidance of elegant refinement. " Masterful Images - The Art of Kiyoshi Saito. Barry Till.

"The nature of the woodcut is such, that even a mistake in its carving will not prevent it from its true materialization." Shiko Munakata


I have returned to using the Japanese carbon ink as I am not yet used to the smell of the sumi ink. I use dry Japon simile paper and rub the baren over the woodblock. The plastic cream baren is hard and unforgiving of the slightly uneven surface where I had put too much pressure on the wood with the bone folder. I use my shredded bamboo baren and the next print is much cleaner. This ox is better than the last one but still with its many imperfections. I stick a sample into my notebook along with the previous samples.


I wonder whether sketching these netsuke from 'life' will make a difference. The central archives department at the British museum have forwarded my request on to the department of Asia and sent me their email so I can contact them directly. I send another email to the department of Asia and wait for their reply.

Sosaku Hanga & Orchids in the Wood

Shiko Munakata

My Swimming Whales exploration reminds me of my trip to the Bower Ashton campus library at UWE last October. While exploring the library shelves I came across Shiko Munakata, founder of the Creative Print movement in Japan. His process resonated with me as he also let the wood speak as there is no right and wrong, just the doing of it.

"The essence of hanga lies in the fact that one must give in to the ways of the board," he says. "There is power in the board and one cannot force the tool against that power. It is this power which lies outside this artist, rather than any power within him, that dominates the creation of hanga." Shiko Munakata The Woodblock and the Artist - Southbank Centre London 1991

Naoko Matsubara

On the shelves of UWE library I also found a thin pamphlet hiding between the heavy hardbacks. It's an exhibition booklet of prints by Naoko Matsubara, a Japanese woodblock printer also from the Creative Print Movement. I have fallen in love with her dynamic and expressive work which focuses on nature and architecture, dancers and movement.

"Nature, in a Matsubara print, is not a passive, uncomprehending background to our endeavours, as much as a pulsating force whose destiny is closely intertwined with that of humans." David Waterhouse


Not long after my visit to UWE library and finding Naoko Matsubara and Shiko Munakata's inspiring work I was determined to try and make a two colour print of some orchids I drew at Wisley Gardens a couple of years ago.


It was very experimental as the registration was completely wrong but some interesting results!