Japanese woodblock printing reached a pinnacle during the country’s Edo period from 1603 to 1867 with the genre we know as ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world.’ After western influence entered the country in 1867 woodblock printing went into decline. In the early twentieth century artists were more interested in the concept of sosaku-hanga, or 'creative prints, which allowed for more personal expression, more freedom in subject matter.’ In spite of these creative differences and the use of a new term to categorize the art, woodblock printing was still a visible genre in the country’s art. During the first quarter of the twentieth century Rakusan Tsuchiya enjoyed a vigorous period of popularity as a woodblock artist.
Painter, woodblock print artist and printer, Rakusan was born Tsuchiya Kôzô in Hyogo Prefecture in 1896, his family moving to Kyoto while he was still a child. He showed a talent for painting as a boy, and with no introduction from influential supporters, his family still managed to get him accepted as a student of Kyoto’s most famous painter of the day, Seiho Takeuchi. After seven years with the master, Rakusan opened his own studio. During the 1920s and 30s he printed and sold his work from his studio until it was disrupted by World War II. In the 1950s his work was sold in the US by Walter Foster. Rakusan’s best known work is a series of 100 woodblock prints done between 1925 and 1929. The work is called Rakusan Flower and Bird Print Series and became so popular the artist went on to print second and third editions. He died in 1976.
This rough sketch from a Rakusan sketchbook was done between 1929-31 and later reworked into a color print. The flower in the sketch is recognizable as a Japanese iris which would be purple in the final print. The artist eventually destroyed his sketchbooks and without any available notes the bird is difficult to name.
Considered by the artist to be one of his best prints, and titled Tawny Daylily and White-winged Widowbird (Early Summer), this woodblock print was produced in 1930 from an original painting on silk. The day lily was originally a Chinese import, but it has been naturalized for centuries in Japan. The white-winged widowbird is an exotic African species often kept in aviaries.
Titled Dead Tree with Scarlet Kazura Vine and Laughing Thrush (Winter), this woodblock print was also the result of an original painting on silk dating from the late 1920s. The laughing thrush is not native to Japan and would have been an exotic caged specimen. Visible here are three small uncolored areas right of center, bounded by the vine growing above the branch—evidence that the woodblock was improperly carved.
Winter Birds Upon a Plum Tree (1930)
Cuckoo and Bracken (Early Summer) 1930
A few of the seals used by Rakusan
A photograph of Rakusan in his Kyoto studio, seated in the foreground