One item on the while-in-town to-do list was getting new tires for the car, and after a little comparative shopping I left the car at the shop with the best options and walked across the street—in fact, waited ten minutes to get safely across an eight lane highway—to a bookstore that has sprung up in Maitland in the last few months. It’s called Bright Light Books, is a used bookstore buying as well as selling books, comics, Japanese manga, CDs and DVDs. Clean, quiet, friendly, big and incredibly stocked with great buys. One wall is devoted to collectable books, which includes a healthy heap of signed and unsigned first editions. Dangerous kind of place for one with weak control in bookstores. I told the man at the register that all the books in my stack were costing more than new tires, in spite of the bargain prices.
In a remote corner on a low hard to reach shelf one particular book sat waiting for discovery by the right someone, and this time it was me. The book is a 1968 reprint of an earlier limited edition, The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, of which only 475 copies were published in 1962. In imperial folio size on the finest of handmade Japanese vellum, the binding was done in three colors of pure, fine-weave hemp cloth. From 275 artists ten prints were selected by a panel of judges. Each of the ten artists received $2,378, and each artist submitted 510 copies of his chosen work, was allowed to keep ten copies for his files and finally required to destroy the original woodblocks. It’s hard to imagine what one of those original 475 folio editions is worth today. The smaller and later edition I found was barely over $10.00.
A little about the process of woodblock printing…
In the early days of the art, sometime in the early 1700s, the artist drew the design, a woodcarver cut the blocks, and a printer colored the blocks and made the finished prints. These stages were always done by three different men. As art invariably does over time, techniques and styles evolve and in the case of woodblock printing, a group of young Japanese artists in the beginning of the twentieth century decided that if the genre were to recapture its vitality, in contrast to the earlier methods modern print artists must do the designing, carving and printing, following a design through from concept to completion. The new term to describe this kind of art was sôsaku hanga—creative print.
All ten of the sôsaku hanga in The Modern Japanese Print are nothing less than stunning, but it is the last of the ten that so strongly impresses me. “Ushi” or ‘Ox’ is by Maki Haku (1924-2000) an artist without any formal training, whose primary job was as an elementary school vice-principal. But he did have the good fortune to make prints for two years under the guidance of Onchi Kôshirô, a leading artist of his day. As in the piece below, Maki is best known for his abstract calligraphic designs. The example below was done with four blocks of three wood types: cherry, Philippine mahogany, and castor wood. One block was printed in gaufrage (relief) to define the outer edges of the print with an embossed line; the others printed in sumi (India) ink and black Japanese-style pigment, on natural-color kozo paper. One impression was made for the gaufrage block and two for the black blocks.
Maki commented on his work this way: “This print is based upon the character ushi, meaning ‘cow’ or ‘ox.’ I have tried to give the ideograph a modern feel, but in an Oriental style. This meant trying to capture the typically Japanese expression of the beauty of space, the sense of reverence for boundless space, while at the same time taking advantage of the boundaries within the life and beauty of the paper itself. The beauty of sumi in its monochrome black penetrates the paper and forbids decorative exaggeration or irrelevancies. This effect combines with a succinct, straightforward approach to create space and expression that, though intentionally compact, still has a quiet and gentle spread. The two small red seals are an integral part of the composition, providing color and a focal point, thus making the impersonality of the ink’s space deeper and wider and warmer.”