Elizabeth Keith, print, "Lama Priest, in Ceremonial Dress," signed, 15 inches by 10 inches; $1,322.50. Photo courtesy of Eldred's
The story goes that Japanese woodblock prints showed up in the western world quite by accident in 1854. Assuming you believe in accidents, it seems a printer in Paris had been given several that had been used as wrapping material in a shipment of Japanese porcelain.
The prints caught his attention and later the attention of the artistic community in Paris. Back then; Paris was the artistic center of the world. The prints are called ukiyo-e, “floating world pictures.” They embody a 200-year period for us when Japan was cut off from the rest of the world.
The floating world was a “now” world, “Living only for the moment…like a gourd floating along with the river current; that is what we call the floating world,” said Asai Ryoi, a follower of the ukiyo-e philosophy.
Every detail of the day-to-day life of the common Japanese person can be seen in these prints from costume changes backstage at a Kabuki theater, to brothel scenes in Edo.
Famous samurai, beautiful geishas, folk-tales, snow scenes, seascapes, songbirds, and temples abound.
The prints were originally produced in huge numbers and looked upon as something to throw away, not works of art. Fortunately, thousands-upon-thousands still exist. They have been collected passionately in the west since their initial arrival.
Artists like Degas, Van Gogh, Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec, Peter Max and Vargas responded strongly to the sense of design and subtle colors in these woodblock prints and integrated that vision into their paintings.
Contemporary artists are still using these traditional woodblock techniques today.
The Ukiyo-e artists favored cherry wood for their wood block prints because it was soft and easy to carve. The artist’s drawing was chiseled and carved on wood blocks, one block for each color. Each block was applied to a piece of paper separately until the image was completed. It was a multi-step process including the artist, engraver, printer and finally publisher.
Nowadays, it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between actual woodblock prints and recent photomechanical reproductions. With a magnifying glass, the colors in the reproductions are broken up into little dots. Woodblock colors are smooth.
But there are reproductions on the market using the old woodblock technique. So it gets tricky.
Condition is important. Wormholes are common in older prints and are a significant problem if they damage the main image. Big creases are problematic. Trimming along the edge can also hurt the value.
How sharp is the impression and colors? Fading is common, whether it be the vegetable dyes that were originally used in the prints, or the synthetic aniline dyes that came along in the late-1860s.
Plainly printed labels on many of the prints showing the artist, publisher and even the government censor who approved the subject help with identification.
On Aug. 22-26, 2000, Eldred’s in East Dennis, Mass., featured auctions including Asian Arts, Japanese Art, and prints of Paul Jacoulet. Let’s take a look at some print highlights from the sale.
Japanese Print Highlights
Sohei, print, “Samurai with drawn Sword,” circa 15 by 10 in., $115
Ueno Tadamasa, print, “Actor in red and white Kimono,” circa 10 by 15 in., $402.50
Takahashi Hiroaki, print, “View of Mount Fuji,” circa 10 by 15 in., $575
Ohara Koson, two prints, “Crow perched on snowy willow Tree,” circa 13 by 5 5/8 in., $920
Elizabeth Keith, print, “Lama Priest, in Ceremonial Dress,” signed in pencil, circa 15 by 10 in., $1,322.50
Hiroshige, print from “One–Hundred Views of famous Places in Edo,” Ekoin and Motto Yanagi Bridge, circa 15 by 10 in., $1,380
Joichi Hoshi, print, “Seascape,” abstracts in greens and reds, #3 of 7, dated 1964, circa 10 by 15 in., $1,495
Kiyoshi Saito, print, “Coral” Woman’s Head in Profile, #51 of 100, dated 1955, circa 10 by 15 in., $4,715