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January 22, 2003

Who “made” traditional Japanese prints?
Posted by Teresa at 11:11 AM *

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.

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?

John Fiorillo:
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…

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?

Dave Bull:
May I refer interested readers to a page in the [Baren] Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking?
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.
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…
Comments on Who "made" traditional Japanese prints?:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2003, 02:22 PM:

As I was reading this post, I was thinking about comics, especially the Japanese studio system which relies heavily on assistants. And about Western artists like Warhol.

#2 ::: Adam Rice ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2003, 03:57 PM:

The comparison with comics is apt. Comics in the USA have a penciler, inker, and colorer. And sometimes one guy who just does backgrounds (forget what that's called). Some pencilers are quite meticulous, and impose more of their style on the end result. Some are more impressionistic, and leave a lot up to the inker, who winds up responsible for the look to a surprising extent. Some penciler/inker teams are more famous for their style *as a team* than either could be alone.

#3 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 02:37 AM:

Ukiyo-e were commercial art, comparable to posters in their time and place. It wasn't until western collectors noticed them--as packing material surrounding some "valuable" Japanese object or other--that the Japanese began to take them seriously. Hokusai (not the only name he took, by the way), at least, deserves credit as a great artist--the man did an incredible lot of stuff, not only ukiyo-e, IIRC. He coined the term "manga," by the way, which means "lazy drawing" and by which he meant what we would now call "cartoon."

As for a comics connection--look up the illustrated Tale of Genji from the Heian period (1100ce or so, iirc). About 20% of it survives, the various pieces of the hand-scrolls separated among various museums, and I would say it is sequential art. The production sequence which the experts say used was one which I think any person familiar with comics would recognize.

#4 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 04:33 AM:

Is there anybody in comics who specializes in doing just the backgrounds, letting others do the figure drawing, besides Gerhard on Cerebus? I don't think that style of work is common enough that the "backgrounds guy" has a name for what he does.

#5 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 10:42 AM:

I don't know if it's an ongoing specialty, but there are times when art chores in comics are divided up that way. When Superman vs Spiderman came out, around 1976, I was looking at it and saying that maybe Dick Giordano's inks weren't as bad as I'd always said they were -- just look at the great work on those backgrounds. I later learned that Terry Austin had done the backgrounds (and put his name on a bakery truck; so obvious in retrospect).

The European masters did the same thing, with figure specialists and landscape specialists working on the same paintings. Sometimes we know who they were, other times it's "studio of..." Too bad they didn't put more detailed credits on the works. Figures: Jazzy Giovanni Cimabue, backgrounds: Jolly Giotto, letters: Avuncular Arturo di Simeca.

#6 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 12:03 PM:

For a more recent example Carl Lundgren, at the height of his popularity--I wonder if he is still working--was doing that. The idea of sole "authorship" in complex popular visual art--and Renaissance painting was that, just as much as ukiyo-e--is often nonsense. Which, I suppose, people like Warhol knew very well, and took advantage of. On top of which, all representational art necessarily involves a certain amount of copying of nature, and probably all abstract art as well.

#7 ::: Adam Rice ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 12:40 PM:

As long as we're talking about this, it's worth pointing out that some of the best comic-book artists were directly inspired by the ukiyo-e masters. Back when I was a kid and collected the Frank Miller Daredevils, I was impressed by a particular two-page layout. Years later, I found exactly that composition in a Yoshitoshi print (Yoshitoshi's my favorite of the ukiyo-e artists).

#8 ::: Scott Marley ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 01:58 PM:

As a practicing writer in the field of opera/musical theater, which even at our modest semi-professional level is one of the most intensely collaborative art forms I know of, I've thought about this issue a lot and have to deal with it in a practical way with every new project.

I've come to think that our concern with assigning a work of art to one artist is our own hangup, a consequence of our modern cult of celebrity, and ultimately born of the same human urge that once created countless gods as personifications of War, Love, Wealth, Fidelity, etc. Trying to analyze an artwork exclusively in terms of a single artist's vision is like trying to analyze the chemical composition of a rainbow.

We scoff nowadays at worshipping gods because we're too sophisticated to believe in their literal truth (and refuse to accept the possibility that those who once worshipped them knew perfectly well that they were worshipping metaphors), and instead we create metaphors like "Peter Jackson" and heap worshipful praise upon him and credit this imaginary superhuman with having personally created every last aspect of the movies that were merely directed by the real person who shares the name.

Various genres differ in how explicitly collaborative they are. Theater and comic books are certainly more so than most others; perhaps something like poetry is least of all. But you can't get away from collaboration and to pretend that you can is to worship a metaphor. Even a poet can't get away from collaboration with his or her readers, because all writing itself depends on shared understanding of the meanings and associations of words, and a work that tries to go beyond that shared understanding, like Finnegans Wake, doesn't make an effect until a reader/collaborator makes the effort to assimilate and share in the author's meanings.

DJM writes: ... but surely that does not also mean that the artist would be undeserving of the primary credit for his creations.

And why is it important to us that the artist receive primary credit? This is a hangup in our own minds, not that of the artist (who in this case is dead and could no longer care less, but who when living is unlikely to have craved that the work of his collaborators be dismissed).

Dave Bull writes: 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.

Again, our hangup. Who do WE remember, WE WE WE. As if it matters whom we remember; as if the artist is supposed to feel warm and fuzzy up in Heaven because we've burned some extra incense at his altar.

It's all just vanity and idolatry. The artwork exists, and EVERYTHING in the community at the time contributed to it: the quality of the sunlight that day, the shared meaning of what a particular kind of brushstroke evokes, the assistant who filled in the sky, the communal understandings that caused the artist to want to express this idea to other people, the strawberries that the printer ate the evening before doing his part of the work.

The artwork came into existence through means too complicated for us to analyze completely, and each of us reacts to it differently in an infinitely complicated way that is influenced by every experience we've ever had. Everything else is a metaphor, useful when you want to talk about what is ultimately ineffable, but an illusion all the same.

#9 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 11:57 PM:

Scott, it depends a lot on the art. In the visual arts, vision, literally, counts for a lot; I think it's fair to give "Hokusai," at least, credit for that. Complex performance arts like opera are something else again; "story" is a big part of the story, but so is music, poetry (when lyricists differ from scriptwriters), production, and performance.

Adam, could Miller have been exposed to ukiyo-e through manga? Or did he study them directly? Manga, of course, draw on the Japanese tradition of integrated text and graphics that goes back, literally, for a millenium. (It came and went in Japanese art, faded out almost entirely in the Meiji period and then came roaring back in manga in the '50s. Modern manga themselves--I just recently looked them up, came from a fusion of Japanese cartooning technique and Western cinematography.)

#10 ::: Cassandra P-S ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 12:25 PM:

Where is the color-chart mentioned? I couldn't find it on either page.

#11 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 01:15 PM:

I certainly don't think it's wrong to give the master artist credit. But (a) I think it's unfortunate to lose sight of the fact that great artists generally have great support teams, (b) my experience is unquestionably that unless one was present at the development of the artwork (or is privy to gossip from one who was), it is impossible to be completely sure who was responsible for any particular stroke, because great assistants can at times be so in harmony with their masters that they are sometimes capable of bursts of genius that are indistinguishable from those of the master (and, truth to tell, those strokes that do not ring true cannot with 100% certainly be attributed to assistants because even great artists are not always at their best), and (c) anyone claiming to be an art connoisseur who doesn't recognize and even delight in the ultimate irrationality and indecipherability of the creative process is kidding either himself or the people he's hiring himself out to or both.

#12 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 03:06 PM:

Scott, we are in agreement. Beyond a certain point, claims of authorship (a word related to authority) become silly. As for connoisseurs, as long as clients hire me when the time comes, I don't care if they are kidding themselves about how I do my work; I hope to be their architect, not their psychotherapist.

Teresa, it occurs to me that ukiyo-e were anything but traditional Japanese art, by the way. They are syncretic works, western-influenced. This is most clearly indicated by the use of perspective. (Which, by the way, sometimes the artists faked.)

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