Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Japanese woodblock printing - a little story

Japanese woodblock printing or Ukiyo-e emanated in China and was bought to Japan along with another important import - Buddhism. This art form was refined and gained its highest levels of popularity in the 1800's. The prints are unmistakable for their allusions to everyday living, cultural references and homage to the forces of nature. These and their apparent simplicity and closeness to a poetry form that I admire very much – haiku – always made me an avid voyeur of this art in whatever form they would present themselves (online, museums, or reproductions in books). I am happy to record here that my wife and I recently managed to acquire an Utagawa Kuniyoshi rice paper print from around 1845. An image is uploaded at the bottom of this post. The print was shipped by a friend of ours who was visiting Japan and we did not get a chance to closely examine the finer aspects until it got home and only then did we manage to get a better look at the same. On looking at the 150 year old fragile looking parchment paper in closer detail, we were surprised to find the unfolding of a little story here. On first looks, it resembles any other period print of that time and culture: A large nosed, hawk eyed man with a flowery kimono in a kabuki pose holding a scroll that contains the caricature of what looks like a samurai soldier with an indecipherable scrawl on the lower left corner. The samurai in the scroll seems to be decked out in battle garb that primarily consist of their long sword (katana blade), a special bland colored kimono (kamishimo) and a shorter sword (wakizashi). The samurai in the scroll seems to be someone who has serenely closed his eyes knowing fully well of the power and violence he could unleash if disturbed from his thoughts.

It is not until a bit later that we noticed to the middle right section, hidden among the greenery, was a turquoise-blue, sap-green cobra uncoiling itself out of ornamental grasses and bamboo leaves with its hood stretched and spread out - this could mean only one thing - ready for a killing strike. (For a closer view, please click on the image - a larger, high-resolution image should open in the browser). The significance of the picture suddenly dawned on us and the effects were akin to a bulb popping in your mind at that serendipitous moment accompanying the release of one from ignorance. Here, it seems that the man in the kimono was apparently invoking the powers of a samurai - probably himself or invoking an allusion to powers invested in his warriors, against the attacking snake in order to defend himself or whatever he stands loyal for. The cobra could be read either as a direct physical threat that the man faces right there and then or may even be construed as a larger threat against the man or what he represents (his kingdom possibly?)… He is seen to invoke the power vested in him (possibly armies at his command) helping him allay any misadventures that the snake (marauders?) might harbor... We do not know, - this is all just theory. At this point, I have managed to ask a friend who is adept at deciphering period Japanese translations in an effort to see if the writing on the print may serve as clues to any one of the allusion-laced stories set above. As soon as we have the answers, I will post here. Whatever the outcome, we are happy to have this with us.

Process: Woodcut prints were a cheaper way to create multiple copies of a picture or a painting. They involve several steps: First, a ‘designer’ traces the lines of the original picture into several sheets of thin paper. Then, the designer applies suitable colors one after another using different sheets for each color. A ‘carver’ then comes along and places the thin paper on blocks made from cherry wood and engraves the blocks in consecutive order. This forms the wood cut master. A ‘paster’ comes along who then makes prints from a ‘set’ of these masters by consecutively matching the right color to the appropriate wood cut and transferring their likeness on rice paper in a predetermined order.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), Woodblock print on mulberry bark rice paper, 14" X 10", circa 1845

1 comment:

Jafabrit said...

So it is possibly a political statement, the snake representing an ideaology or political enemy?

They are beautiful prints.