When a copy is an original–the Satō Woodblock Print Workshop and Rebecca Salter

What happens to the conceptualization of a copy when artisans engage in reproducing a contemporary work of art?

Satō Keizō consults with printer Nakayama Makoto (left) and carver Kitamura Shōichi (center) about reproducing Rebecca Salter’s series of paintings.

Satō Keizō consults with printer Nakayama Makoto (left) and carver Kitamura Shōichi (center) about reproducing Rebecca Salter’s series of paintings.

Outwardly, visual artist Rebecca Salter based in London and the Satō Woodblock Print Workshop situated in Kyoto occupy the disparate worlds of contemporary art and traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Salter works in an irrevocably contemporary idiom of fine art abstraction seemingly disconnected from the history, material culture and linear aesthetic of Japan’s heyday of woodblock prints during the Edo period (1603-1868)—a world that Satō Keizō and his team of artisans seem hardly to have left with their authentic reproductions of Hokusai’s and Hiroshige’s.

Salter’s and Satō’s worlds converged twenty-five years ago when the contemporary artist and traditional artisan first met through Akira Kurosaki, woodblock print artist, teacher and preservationist of the medium. Since then, Satō, with his sharpened eye for interpreting contemporary art in woodblock and pigments, and Salter, an established print artist and global proponent of woodblock printmaking, have become regular collaborators. Just a few months ago, I was visiting Satō’s workshop when an international express mail package of a series of Salter’s watercolor and acrylic and paintings arrived. Salter’s request was to reproduce her contemporary originals as limited edition woodblock prints in anticipation of a retrospective on her artworks to be held at the Yale Center for British Art February-May 2011.

Carver Fujisawa Hiroshi demonstrates how one of his blocks captures dimensions of Salter’s design.

Carver Fujisawa Hiroshi demonstrates how one of his blocks captures dimensions of Salter’s design.

While Satō indisputably identifies his shop’s work of recreating Hokusai and Hiroshige ukiyo-e masterworks as reproductions, with equal certitude, he asserts that his recreations of Salter’s contemporary originals are themselves original works of art. To better understand Satō’s claim of originals of Salter’s originals, we return to Satō’s Kyoto workshop where Salter’s originals traverse the steps in the (re)creative process. Satō arranges a meeting with his senior print apprentice and the two master carvers who will cut Salter’s designs into woodblock. After rapid confirmation of the timeline and logistics of the project, the foursome slides into a detailed assessment of Salter’s originals. The different artisans discuss the materials and techniques Salter used in her creations and determine how best to translate them into woodblock prints. Theirs is not simple tabletop talk, but a full sensory analysis in which they turn the originals over and over in their hands to evaluate the texture of the paper, the qualities and layers of paint and the luminosity of the image at varied angles. They debate the challenge of reproducing Salter’s trademark diffusions of blacks and grays that while conducive to color-wash techniques in woodblock printing are nevertheless daunting in their randomness and profusion. At times, in a display of generational divide, the younger of Satō’s two carvers counsels his senior how conventional tools and techniques might render some of Salter’s expressionistic contemporary effects.

At the conclusion of the consultation, Satō divides Salter’s series of originals in half, entrusting to each of his carvers, working in their separate studios, the task of faithful interpretation. Senior master carver Fujisawa Hiroshi, who became an apprentice woodblock carver at the age of thirteen only a few years after the end of World War II when he realized he was not inclined academically, says his comprehension of Salter’s work is mediated by his training as a traditional artisan. Adamant that he lacks sufficient knowledge of contemporary art to fully appreciate Salter’s work, he credits his Buddhist beliefs for enabling him to maintain proper conduct (kōdō) in order to produce his high-quality work. He concedes that having never met Salter in person, he cannot know her œuvre. But he is quick to acknowledge that what he sees as vestiges of traditional Japanese aesthetics in Salter’s paintings allow him to interpret her work. Her asymmetrical contours; bold, scapular lines; and flourishes and fusions of light and dark all seem familiar to him as traditional aesthetics that run through calligraphy and ink painting. Through these resonances, he gains the confidence to cut Salter’s paintings into wood.

Carver Kitamura Shōichi works through a stage of the woodcutting process for one of the four blocks that will capture a single original painting by Salter.

Carver Kitamura Shōichi works through a stage of the woodcutting process for one of the four blocks that will capture a single original painting by Salter.

Kitamura Shōichi, the younger carver Satō commissioned for Salter’s project, has engaged in numerous collaborations with contemporary artists, from Singapore to Melbourne. A graduate of Kyoto Seika University’s art department whose woodblock print major was launched by the aforementioned Akira Kurosaki in 1987, Kitamura represents a contemporary variation of the artisan; unlike his senior Fujisawa, he consciously recognizes his roles as both artist and artisan. Moreover, he inherently understands the abstraction that pervades contemporary art and the infinite interpretations it invites. His selection of commonplace veneer plywood for his carving, he explains, though a far different medium from the tight, smooth mountain cherry preferred in traditional Japanese woodblock printing, better suits the expressionistic effects in Salter’s work. Although Kitamura is also an experienced printer, in his carving, he concerns himself only with the microsecond decisions necessary to capture Salter’s originals on his blocks, leaving the effects of his blocks in the printing process up to Satō to resolve.

Unsolicited, each carver identifies budget as a limiting factor to how precisely he can interpret Salter’s paintings in wood. Satō directs them, for instance, to generate only four blocks per print for each of Salter’s originals, inevitably altering the precision of their final result. This reality, a scourge to artists and artisans alike, is heightened in Japan where the relative cost of labor, and also in this case, of high quality timber exacerbate the challenge. But the carvers both emphasized the importance of interpretation over materials in their final product.

Fujisawa’s and Kitamura’s woodblocks of Salter’s originals have yet to undergo their own interpretation by Satō and the team of printers in his workshop, but already Salter’s originals are begetting new originals. Whereas duplication defines the reproduction of historic masterworks, artists and artisans engaged in contemporary art printmaking participate in a creative process that demands constant interpretation on the part of artist-artisan carvers, such as Fujisawa and Kitamura, and printers like Satō. Far from standard notions of duplication, Salter’s works become originals again.

Claire Cuccio is an independent scholar based in Kobe, Japan, writing on woodblock craft and printmaking in China and Japan.

A Copy as Woodblock Print by Claire Cuccio

There is no place better to contemplate the valuation of a copy than on the second floor of a timeworn house behind Kyoto’s Gion district—the home of the Satō Woodblock Printing Workshop. Here making copies is business, but in Satō’s workshop, copying is still handcraft, codified as dentō kōgei ( ‘traditional art craft’) by the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs, the same classification of craft explored in the journal’s current issue. Despite its institutional classification with other traditional Japanese art crafts, Satō’s handcraft is diminished by its final product, duplicates. Satō’s finished products are naturally the most accessible, tangible and therefore customary means by which to assess value, but like all works designated broadly as copies, they are devalued along the original/copy binary. But what if we invert the priority and privilege process over final product?

Take the ukiyo-e series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) that includes the iconic prints The Great Wave off Kanagawa and Red Fuji. Under the supervision of a publisher, the original series was designed by Katsushika Hokusai and produced in collaboration with a team of woodblock carvers and printers between 1826-1833 in the latter years of the Edo period. Reproducing such canonical ukiyo-e series constitutes one mainstay that keeps the shingle hanging outside traditional Japanese woodblock printing workshops like Satō’s. Reprints of Hokusai’s Fuji series are sought not simply to satisfy enduring consumer demand for the visual frames that merge landmark, landscape and daily life, but also as manifestations of the virtuoso display of woodblock techniques that reached their apex in Hokusai’s era: the multitude of straight and curving hairpin-thin lines carved in relief; the layering of primary-color pigments printed as many as 20 times over to achieve different hues, tones and degrees of saturation; gradations of color finessed through various styles of the technique known as bokashi, among others.

Commercially speaking, Satō Keizō maintains a sharp distinction between ukiyo-e reproductions divided between two broad categories: fukuseiban, literally “re-manufactured prints” implying machine production, and fukkokuban, whose expression swaps “manufacture” with the Chinese character for “carve” (koku) to generate something like a “re-carved print.” Satō believes that the presence of the human hand in the latter expression indicates a genuine remaking of the original imprint, and he and his team of three printers produce high-quality, exclusive reprint editions referred to as fukkokuban for their Tokyo and Kyoto publishers.

What is the process that Satō and his printers engage in when creating contemporary reprints of Hokusai’s Edo period originals? Their initial challenge is an analytical one: how to reproduce the remarkable effects of the originals. More precise, how do they create reprints without access to the exact materials and the same depth of experience that Edo master printers once passed down through full branches of uninterrupted lines of apprentices? They convene for candid, collegial consultation, pooling their knowledge to discern what combination of their techniques is most likely to achieve the effects in the original—defined in this case by first-edition prints pulled from woodblocks carved from these first-edition prints (shohanbon). When the publisher does not supply the paper to keep within a certain budget, they palpably examine the original paper in order to match it with their own paper selection by color, weight, texture and fiber count. In the next critical step of colorant analysis: the printers do not necessarily reproduce the colors as they actually see them in the original in front of them. Depending upon the condition of the original, the pigments actually range from faded tones to a nearly pristine brightness. Satō’s approach then is to select new pigments that match or at least closely mimic the qualities of the original colorants, while at the same time, diverging to mix shades of color imbued with faded tones. That is, the color in his copy incorporates a derivative blend of authenticity with a contemporary preference for more muted colors than those that would be found in the original in new condition.

The actual process of printing begins only after the arrival of original woodblocks from the publisher’s storage or of new blocks commissioned from a local carver that he generates from original Hokusai prints. Satō’s printers inaugurate the printing process by mixing small portions of five water-based powder pigments (ganryō) in red, yellow, sepia and two varieties of blue in addition to the basic black sumi. The team wets down high-quality, handmade paper known as hōsho, a variety of washi made of mulberry fiber time-tested to withstand multiple woodblock impressions. They arrange the paper and pigments around their workspace along with a bowl of nori, rice-starch paste that is mixed with the pigments to impart depth and hold, and a variety of specialized brushes for distributing the pigment, among other accoutrements. With swift orchestration of pigment and nori atop a block followed by careful alignment of a sheet of paper onto the block, each print is pulled from each block, layering one color at a time through the power of the hand that wields the traditional circular baren. For the observer, the hand printing stimulates awe in the utter consistency of color and effects across an average run of 70-100 prints, the same consistency that also must run across the 46 different prints in the entire Hokusai series.

Awe, of course, is normally the preserve of an original piece of art. And producing a reprint of an original ukiyo-e print merely yields a copy, doesn’t it? More than a century of technological improvements that have led to automated image production has demystified and simplified the process of producing a polychrome printed copy. The smooth regularity of a color-calibrated electronic copy renders superfluous the analytical process of the eye and the hand as well as the selection and regulation of materials required in traditional hand produced prints.

But deconstructing the process of producing a reprint of an original woodblock print on the second floor of the Satō house beyond Gion reveals the art in the copy. Embedded within is a storehouse of human capital that combines material and technical analysis with creative problem solving, physical strength and mental diligence. These qualities do not transcend the content of the artist’s original, but they honor and stand up to the original, and are valid, forceful expressions of materiality in themselves. Inverting the appreciation of a copy to begin with process also calls for participation in a practice that becomes ritualistic for both participant and observer as it approaches history and authenticity.

Claire Cuccio is an independent scholar based in Kobe, Japan, writing on woodblock craft and printmaking in China and Japan.