This is a page of selected comments from a thread that developed in the Shogun Gallery’s Chats on Japanese Prints discussion forum. It’s fascinating if you’re into ukiyo-e, but it’s also one of the best discussions I’ve seen of the issues that arise in any collective or collaborative art form:
I’d like to toss out a topic for debate. I have a sneaking suspicion that our art-historical approach to ukiyo-e is mistaken in concentrating too much on individual artists and less on the productive role of Edo culture itself.John Fiorillo:
When we truly consider the ‘ukiyo-e quartet’ that lies behind the production of a work, how can we continue only to assert the central importance of the designer? Isn’t this merely a leftover of the ‘collector mentality’ (it’s a Hokusai!) that has distorted our view of ukiyo-e for too long? …
A final piece of evidence: in certain joint works, each artist puts his ‘own’ style aside for the sake of continuity, producing designs so completely unlike his other that without the force of the signature, no one would recognize him. Ultimately, wasn’t ukiyo-e just a question of ‘giving the people what they want’, as in any piece of pop culture? And wasn’t it the publisher’s job to put his tendrils out into the waves and feel which way the current was flowing, then direct the designer accordingly? Hokusai was the only artist capable of carving his own blocks, and when it came to color choice, the ‘artist’ had only a preliminary say. So I want to question all these monographs that discuss an artist’s work as if his life experiences led him to it, and as if he just came up with these great ideas on his own. Isn’t ukiyo-e a collective product that in the final analysis represents the people of Edo much more than any one person, the almighty creative artist?
The ‘ukiyo-e quartet’ (artist, block carver, printer, and publisher) does not preclude the central importance of the artist, who was, after all, the designer or ‘conceiver’ of the composition. First, without the artist’s original inspiration and its translation into at least a rough sketch (sometimes there were more finished drawings), there would be no print. Second, we must carefully evaluate what role the artist might have played in influencing the final outcome in the collaborative process - it is not true that every artist simply handed over a sketch and then had nothing else to do with the production of ukiyo-e prints…Dave Bull:
You are certainly correct to suggest that wider influences operated on the artist, and I agree that an artist could not produce his work in a vacuum, but surely that does not also mean that the artist would be undeserving of the primary credit for his creations. If that were so, you could argue that anyone could be an artist of repute because the influences were around all of us and so we would only have to express them. But there’s the rub! A thousand people who had grown up in the same local culture could view a landscape from the same observation point and then attempt to draw that landscape, but would any of them be another Hokusai or a Hiroshige?
May I refer interested readers to a page in the [Baren] Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking?It goes on from there, touching on many points: a marvellous and illuminating conversation. Also, if you’ve worked in comics or graphic design, there’s this Utamaro kyogo-zuri (color key) you’ve got to see…It is sometimes difficult for people living in our day, a time in which the names of many of the long-dead designers have been elevated into ‘superhero’ status … Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige … to understand that these designers in many cases had very little to do with the details of the appearance of the finished prints. Quite a number of working sketches and intermediate stages have survived to our time, and these show us that the designer usually produced what we would now call a ‘sketch’. The main strokes of the design were there, but all else was vague at best….But who do we remember now - that man who carefully drew every line in the print? The carver who brought those lines to life? The printer? No, the only name we remember is that of the man who brushed that original sketch.