I’ve recently gotten my hands on a copy of Andreas Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks, 1680-1900 (published by Tuttle). It is a mighty hefty book, over three hundred pages long, hardcover. And at $35 right now on Tuttle’s own website (on discount from the real cover price of $50), it’s not an unreasonable price, either, which is a wonderfully welcome rarity when it comes to these kinds of books – large, hardcover, filled with full-color images, you’d expect them to slap whatever the hell pricetag they feel on it, asking for $60, $80, or even $100. In light of that, $35 seems almost reasonable.
But let’s get into the meat of the book, shall we? It opens with an essay by the author, introducing and summarizing the topic of woodblock prints, overall, with a refreshingly particular focus on the commercial, ephemeral nature of the prints – subject to the market, to popularities of the time – and a focus on the importance of the publisher, and others, not only the print designer (the “artist”), in the design and production of these prints. Combined with the brief introduction by Stephen Addiss, which says essentially the same, the book makes clear that it is working to try to push (or simply participate in, or be reflective of) a shift in the way we think about ukiyo-e. This might be my axe to grind more than Marks’, but for too long, ukiyo-e has been seen as some elevated art form, to be appreciated for its aesthetic and design elements, the artists lauded and celebrated as Japanese Michelangelos. But, as Addiss and Marks emphasize here, designers worked closely with publishers and others, who had a great deal of influence upon the subjects that would get published, and the style and designs they wished to sell; and, that print designers were further subject to the demands of the market – they had to design prints that would be popular, prints that would sell. Not entirely unlike the relationship between a comicbook artist, his editor, and the fans/consumers today, perhaps.
This introductory essay is followed by a nice little sidebar which talks about the different kinds of names artists held (yômyô, zokumyô, gasei, some given by parents, some by teachers, some chosen oneself as an art-name), Western vs. traditional Japanese dates, and the various sizes of prints in both cm and inch equivalents (e.g. ôban as 27x39cm or 10.6×15.4in). Far too many authors in my experience – not just in art books, but in Japanese Studies more broadly – aren’t clear whether the dates they’re giving are Western dates, or references to a Japanese date, and aren’t so diligent about informing the reader about different types of names, so it’s nice to see Marks put this in clearly and explicitly.
Most of the rest of the first half of the book is taken up by biographies of artists, ranging from one paragraph (in the case of Kiyonobu II) to the better part of a full page in length (in the case of Utamaro), interspersed with multiple, large, full-color images of selections of each artist’s works. His use of single names – e.g. Kiyonobu instead of Torii Kiyonobu – in the main headline or title of each bio rubs me a bit the wrong way, like he’s buying into, or perpetuating, the elevation of these “artists” as personalities, as individual geniuses, but then again, he could be doing this in order to help highlight that artists’ names were multiple, and sometimes misapplied. For example, Hiroshige has come to frequently be called Andô Hiroshige, using his family name inherited from his father; but as Hiroshige is an art-name, I have read elsewhere that he would never have used these together. Utagawa is the name of the studio or school in which he studied, and so he earned the right to use the Utagawa name from his teacher, but he’s not a typical Utagawa artist, and went on to do other things. Then, Ichiyûsai is just his own fanciful studio name he invented himself. So perhaps there is something to be said for not perpetuating a canonization of any one of those names as the chief one? But, even so, to see “Sukenobu” and “Toyohiro” instead of “Nishikawa Sukenobu” and “Utagawa Toyohiro,” I cannot help but feel there is an energy of mythologization, as if we were to pluck these people out of their specific historical context and place them into a canon of the greatest artists, all so great they’re known by just one name – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Madonna. As someone who is not a specialist or expert in European art, I feel it all the more, because I genuinely don’t know the fuller names, in many cases, of even the most famous European artists. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn feels like the name of someone who might have lived in 17th century Amsterdam, but “Rembrandt” transcends time and space, and cultural and historical specificity in a way that I think we need to stop thinking about our artists.
Given Marks’ introduction, his emphasis on the importance of publishers and of the market, I find it strange, and off-putting, then, that he would continue to do this sort of thing with the single names, and in fact that he continually uses the word “artist” – including in the title of this section – rather than pushing the discourse by using a term like “print designer.” If you believe that these individuals were not uniquely divinely inspired geniuses, but were instead commercial designers hired by and restricted by publishers and by the demands of the market, then don’t call them “artists”! Call them print designers – and encourage the popular perception today, among collectors, dealers, enthusiasts, to change!
Skimming through the book, I expected to find bios that look great at first glance but are actually far less informative, less thorough, than one might wish for. I’ve certainly seen plenty of books of this sort, on a wide range of topics, which look great on first glance, but when you get into actually reading them, you realize they say so little about each individual thing – lords, clans, events, port towns, individual merchants – as to be essentially worthless for learning anything about those individual things. Many of the older Taiyô Bessatsu (“The Sun” Special Edition), sadly, seem to be of this sort.
However, as one reads a bit more closely, Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints does not seem to be doing that. Sure, granted, one could write an entire book on Utamaro, Hokusai, or Hiroshige, and of course many people have. Marks’ book certainly cannot be said to be as thorough as any of those, nor as meticulous as Richard Lane’s work listing every known work by a given artist. But we don’t need Marks to do that, to be that, because we already have Lane. What Marks does here, what he provides here, are good, solid, biographies of a great many artists, including many who I imagine are given short shrift in most other publications – even three paragraphs on Chôkyûsai Eizan is three paragraphs more than I think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. And it’s not a light bio full of useless fluff – in these three paragraphs, Marks informs us of Eizan’s birth year, the name of his father, the neighborhoods he lived in, the artists he studied under, the year and age of his death, and the name of the temple where he is buried. Granted, we only get a brief bit on what types of works he produced, and his stylistic influences, but for me at least, this is actually better. Marks provides the kind of concrete biographical details that most art historical treatments, more focused on style, genre, and influences, would pass over. And, besides, even for a minor artist like Eizan, we’re given five full-color images of examples of his work, one of them a full-page illustration, giving us a sense at a glance of his style – we don’t need it described out in lengthy paragraphs. So, in this way, I do think that Marks’ book is a wealth of knowledge, a real deep, solid, source to consult for names and dates and the like, a true compendium of artists.
The fact that Marks includes publishers at all is also fairly revolutionary, since “traditional” scholarship on ukiyo-e has always focused on artists almost exclusively, elevating them, and all but ignoring publishers and others involved in the process. Newer scholarship including Marks’ works have tried to instead emphasize that ukiyo-e was a commercial venture, and a process that involved multiple figures. The print designer only ever painted designs for prints, often with considerable influence from the market (i.e. what would sell, what was popular) and/or input from publishers – we really should be comparing them more to designers, illustrators, comicbook artists and the like, who do not simply produce whatever they want, out of their personal emotional expression and individual genius inspiration, but instead are hired or commissioned by publishers to produce specific products, often with particular content and in a particular style. In ukiyo-e, the designer’s design would then be carved into blocks by a professional block carver, and printed by hand by a professional printer, with the original designer very often /not/ having the final say on colors. Furthermore, it was whoever held the woodblocks (a person called the hanmoto, often the publisher) who had the right to reproduce, or even to alter, images – in this way, too, the ukiyo-e print designer resembles the comicbook artist; the basic design, the likeness, the character, of Wolverine and Batman are owned by Marvel Comics and DC, and not by the individual writers or artists who originally designed them. In short, print designers were not “artists” in the Renaissance/post-Renaissance modernist / post-modernist way we tend to think of artists today; they were not the individual inspired genius who produced whatever he chose, and was celebrated for his inspiration, as we tend to think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Pollock, Rauschenberg, today. And Marks addresses this in the book, not only in essays, but also by including such a large section on biographies of publishers. Apologies for repeating myself, but I am surprised, therefore, that he would nevertheless employ the word “artists” in the title, and throughout the book. I wonder if this was pushed upon him by the publisher, in order to make it more accessible to a wider, more popular audience, or something.
Some of Marks’ publisher’s biographies are quite good, quite thorough and informative as they are for the artists. With others, however, I have some difficulties. In some of these bios, he explicitly discusses who took over a publishing operation (and the name of the head) in each generation – who was the second Tsutaya Jûzaburô, and the third? Were they biological sons, or apprentices adopted in? Or were they son-in-laws, who married Tsutaju’s daughters? For some of the publishers, we get these narratives. For others, from Marks’ biographies, you might almost be inclined to think that a given publisher – the same individual person – was actively active in publishing for decades and decades, since he spends so little time talking about how many different people took on each publisher’s name, when they succeeded one another, etc. Moriya Jihei, for example, is described as having been a member of the Jihon toiya, or “Picture Book and Print Publishers Guild” in 1807, worked with Utamaro around that time, with Hokusai in the 1830s, was a member of the “Old Faction,” or moto gumi, of that same guild as of 1851, and as of 1876 was still active. That’s an active career of nearly seventy years; not just a life of seventy years – this man would have to have been at least 80-something in the end, and that’s if he started when he was 12. Was this the same man? Who knows? Marks doesn’t seem to even /acknowledge/ the question.
In any case, and this is an important point – I do not have Marks’ Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, published only a year earlier, immediately at hand, but from what I remember seeing in there, I would not be surprised if much of the content is duplicated. So, be careful. Don’t buy both thinking you’re going to get 100% all-new content.
By way of saying something overall about this book, in the end, I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for out of a book on woodblock prints. For someone looking for their first book on woodblock prints, I think I would recommend Frederick Harris’ book, which I reviewed recently, over this one. Whereas Marks’ book is devoted chiefly to individual bios of individual artists and publishers, Harris’ book will take you through the styles and genres, the chronological progression of the evolution of the art form, the introduction of different materials and techniques… much of the foundational narratives and other concepts and knowledge about the history and development of woodblock prints in general. You won’t get such a clean narrative from Marks’ book – outside of the essays, within the bios, I’m not sure you’ll really get a good sense of when and how woodblocks got started, when and why landscapes became a big thing in the 1830s, when and how Prussian blue was first introduced and why that’s a big deal, or how prints flowed commercially and functioned discursively, as well as you would with Harris’ book. But that’s fine. Because not everyone wants or needs such a general, and introductory, sort of book. I am more than happy to have Harris’ book on my shelf as a great foundational, and broad-coverage book to turn to, but when it comes to ukiyo-e in particular, such a popular topic, popular among art collectors and just general public armchair enthusiasts, as well as those who just dip their toe into Japanese things only a little, those who are just buying it as a neat present, or as a coffee table book, there are a wealth of introductory-level books out there on ukiyo-e. So I am glad, too, to have a book like this one by Andreas Marks, which does something very different. He allows those other books to cover that other stuff, and focuses in on providing bios of tens and tens of artists and publishers, many of whom I’d only ever find the tiniest bit about in most of those other books. So, the next time I’m looking for something on Adachi Ginkô, Utagawa Kokunimasa, Eishôsai Chôki, or Toshinobu, I’ll have somewhere to look. Or even, if I’m looking for some names & dates sort of details about the life of Hiroshige or Hokusai (e.g. when did he take on the name Hiroshige? 1812.) without having to wade through pages and pages about style, I’ll have this book to turn to.
Much of the information on the publishers does seem to duplicate what’s in the compendium, so I’m not sure whether or not it’s valuable to own both; this is something I’ll have to look into. Also, I must note that while Marks does include many lesser-known ukiyo-e print designers here, there are still plenty he does not cover. If you want to learn anything about Ekin, or Hiroshige II or III, you won’t find them in this book. And you also won’t find much about ukiyo-e painting, a topic still woefully overshadowed by the popularity of prints. I’m still waiting for books (there might be a few out there, but waiting for them to become more numerous and more dominant) which talk about ukiyo-e as a school, or movement, or genre, that included both prints and paintings and illustrated books, all at once, pushing a shift in popular perception from the idea that “ukiyo-e = prints” to the idea that prints are no more major, no more important, no more emblematic of ukiyo-e than books or paintings. The vast majority of these “artists” were doing all three, and some would likely privilege paintings or book illustrations over prints, in fact. It’s about time we get the popular public conception to acknowledge and accept that.