Having a blog really has its perks every now and then. I was recently contacted by some folks at Tuttle Publishing, who were gracious and generous enough to offer me a review copy of their 2010 book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, by Frederick Harris. I’d seen the book on Amazon, but didn’t think too much of it, given how many other books with similar titles are out there, most of them really quite ordinary.
It’s only been offered to me a couple times, but generally, I’m a bit hesitant to agree to review books. What if they turn out to be really quite ordinary? What if I find I have nothing too much positive to say? Well, in this case, it turns out I needn’t have worried. Really. I have to admit, I have not had the time to read it through, cover to cover, but this book is gorgeous. Tons of full page full color images, and whereas many museum exhibition catalogs, by their nature, devote upwards of 75% of their pages to just catalog entries, Harris strikes a great balance, with lots of images but also lots of essays and other content. This is very much not the type of book which contains one to five introductory essays, and then just catalog entries for the rest of the volume.
Harris has twelve full chapters, on topics ranging from Materials and Techniques to Collecting and Caring for Prints. And while he does do service to the standard categories of images, such as landscapes, beautiful women, actors & sumo wrestlers, and heroes & ghosts, he also has chapters dedicated to book illustrations and “foreigners in Japan” (chiefly Yokohama-e, from the Bakumatsu period). This is a big deal, as Harris departs beautifully from the artificial boundaries that so many books on prints elect not to cross. I don’t know whether it has to do with the influence of collectors and dealers (rather than professional art historians or curators) on the historiography, or if it’s the nature of art history and art museum curation as well, but, for a long time, writing on ukiyo-e has been dominated by aesthetic and stylistic concerns, categorizing prints into numerous sub-categories, and categorizing them as entirely separate from illustrated books, paintings, or anything else. Only recently, I think, have we started to see much more discussion, in books such as this one, in museum exhibits, and elsewhere, emphasizing a more holistic, integrated view of Edo period popular culture, placing the prints into their cultural context and describing them alongside their cousins – the illustrated book, and the painting.
As a result of this particular history of the discourse on ukiyo-e, the average person on the street, even if they know something about Hokusai, something about Japanese woodblock prints, probably does not know that most ukiyo-e artists, Hokusai included, did just as much painting and book illustrations as single-sheet prints, and some in fact specialized much more in one or another, but their work is no less magnificent or worthwhile for it. And most ukiyo-e artists also did just as much work in shunga (erotic prints) as in non-erotic pieces, if not more. Hokusai, Utamaro, Kiyonaga – all of them. And while Western and Japanese audiences alike may have been embarrassed by these pieces, or otherwise thought them inappropriate, for over a century – I believe their exhibition is still extremely restricted in Japan – at the time, such distinctions were not really made, and these works would not tarnish an artist’s reputation in any way; to the contrary, shunga were extremely popular.
So, I really applaud Harris including all of these things in his book.
Now, Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print is a book on prints, not on paintings, and that’s fine. Harris certainly goes more than far enough in his scope, including into the realm of prints all sorts of things all too often left out. (If you’re interested in a book on ukiyo-e painting, I would recommend the MFA’s exhibit catalog Drama and Desire.) Rather than focusing only on single-sheet prints from the Edo period, and rather than perpetuating the lionizing and canonization of the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige (those these two certainly get their share of coverage in the book), Harris starts with the 8th century Hyakumantô darani, the oldest examples of woodblock printing from anywhere in the world surviving today, and incorporates here and there throughout the text images of shin hanga (“new prints”) from the 20th century as well. Further, in addition to devoting entire chapters to illustrated books and shunga, as I mentioned, he also sprinkles throughout the book images of aizome-e, which I’m pretty sure is the same thing I’ve seen referred to as ai-e or aizuri-e – variant impressions of prints which used only blue, in place of both the black lines and any other colors in the print. These were exciting experiments at the time when they were made, in the early 1830s, when Prussian blue, aka Berlin blue, the first artificial chemical pigment in the world first became available in Japan (as opposed to vegetable dyes, which often faded or discolored easily). It’s this Prussian blue which gives the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” its brilliant color, and indeed the examples of aizuri-e Harris includes on pages 106 and 115, by Hokusai and Hiroshige respectively, are stunning, especially in their use of bokashi (fading of color, frequently used in the blue of the sky fading into white at it approaches the horizon). These experiments in all-blue prints did not continue for too long after the early 1830s, though, as the blue pigment wore down the woodblocks much faster than other pigments did, and perhaps in part simply because the fad passed – in short, it got old.
I would need to read the book word for word to see how Harris addresses a variety of subjects, but from what I see from a cursory skim, Harris’ writing is not only easy, quick reading, and engaging, but also thorough and informative. If you’re already fairly knowledgeable about prints, this might not provide the most radically new insights or approaches for you; but, I can see this as an excellent book for someone just first getting into Japanese prints – nothing will ever be as classic a mainstay as Richard Lane’s “Images from the Floating World,” but Lane has some problems, and Harris’ book is not too dense, or dry by a long shot, but also not at all too shallow, or misinforming. Harris uses lots of specialty terms, such as uki-e, bokashi, and hanshita-e, but introduces them properly, making them easy to follow and to learn.
He also includes or emphasizes a number of points which, if not entirely new and radical, are certainly not emphasized strongly enough or often enough elsewhere. To point to one example, people commonly believe that the designer of each print was an “artist,” uniquely inspired, brilliant in his design abilities and aesthetic sense, a creator of works which are distinctive expressions of his unique personality. The decades and decades of love for Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all the rest, canonized by name, doesn’t help. Yet, here, Harris emphasizes on the very first page of his Preface, that “it is also important for readers to realize that the making of prints was a collaborative effort between the artist, woodblock carver, printer and publisher.” He also goes into fuller detail than I’ve seen many other books do as to the block-carving and printing process itself, including brilliant photos of the chisels and baren and how they were used, and of a key block and its resulting printed image, visually demonstrating the process beautifully.
This post has gone on long enough, so I suppose I shall stop here. I eagerly look forward to reading this through more fully, and seeing what new things I might learn about prints that even I had not come across before.