Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Art of Ohara Shôson

An example of Japanese artist Ohara Shôson’s work in the always dazzling blog BibliOdyssey the other day prompted me to show a little more of the man’s work. Oddly enough, he is a woodblock print artist who was always more popular in the US than his native Japan.

Ohara Shôson (1877-1945) was born in the city of Kanazawa, Japan. Best known for prints in the kachô-e style, in which birds and flowers are the dominant subject, his work did at times include paintings of fish and on occasion animals, houses, fishing boats, bridges and women. His work is realistic and based mainly on his own sketches and watercolors. Shôson’s painting began at a time when the ukiyo-e print tradition was waning and the shin hanga or ‘new print’ was yet to flower, however in his later years he returned to woodblock printmaking. The work drew little attention in Japan, but beginning around 1926 Shôson’s prints found great favor in the US and most of his work was exported. At a time when many Japanese had lost any sense of their traditional values, many artists sought markets outside of Japan. The work Shoson did in the mid 1930s is considered his peak, though a large number of his prints were sold at prices below that of his competitors. Over the course of his life Shôson is estimated to have produced more than 450 designs of birds. Some of that work is signed with the name Kôson or Hôson.

Because of his origins as a painter in watercolors and oil, there is a quality to Shôson’s woodblock prints that suggest watercolor. Examination of the detail in a bird’s plumage or a flower’s petals reveal a high degree of craftsmanship. It isn’t unusual to find different versions of the same composition as Shôson was fond of varying his colors.

The print above depicts an egret perched on a snow covered willow tree. Though not dated it is assumed to be from the mid 1930s. A dense black background dramatically sets off embossed white feathers printed in a pale reddish-gray. In this work Shôson created a sublime atmosphere of stillness and beauty.

Once again the artist used a black background, but rather than the stark white of the egret above, he has made his swans a creamy presence of elegantly curved necks and orange beaks. The reeds are a greenish-gray, while reflections in the water ripple in that same cream. Title: Geese and Reeds, 1928.

This shin hanga design shows a duck diving under water, the upper portion of its body visible in gray silhouette. Water is shaded with pale blue gray and reeds on the left at top and bottom frame the scene. Title: Diving Duck, undated.

White Herons in Falling Snow is a print from the late 20s, possibly 1927. It shows a lovely grouping of five herons standing against a gradated background that begins at the top with a dark gray night sky growing lighter with the fall of snow and settling at the bottom in a darkening blue. The birds appear to be focused on the drift of falling snow.

From 1928 is the woodblock print Heron in the Rain, and once again the stark white of the bird set off against a nighttime black. The long slants of rain, also white give a marvelous asymmetry to the vertical rectangle of the canvas. The heron here is stylized and captures well the bird’s spirit. The only color is the gray green beak and legs and a dot of yellow in the bird’s eye. Shôson signed this print in that same rain-white.

Again the black and white of a crow against a snowy background. Crow on a Willow Branch in Snow is an early work done around 1910 of a crow perched on a snow covered branch, mouth open in mid-caw. The only dash of color is seen in the crow’s tongue, then reflected in the red of Shôson’s seal.

I mentioned above that the artist painted under different names at times. Above are seven of the signatures and seals we can see today on the paintings of Ohara Shôson.


  1. Thanks for posting these. They are gorgeous! The first one (egret?) is surreal.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America