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.

The repetition of the commonplace by Matthew Larking

Craft has occasionally sought a status commensurate with that of fine art or an avant-garde in the 20th century. However, it is rare that a contemporary Japanese artist has followed an internal logic within his conceptual work to arrive at hand-crafted ceramics.  This, however, is the present end point in the artistic practice of Nobuaki Onishi (b.1972).

While the conflating of the values of the various arts is usually attributed to developments in art dating from the late 1960s, it was in the Quattrocento that earlier debate clearly arose  concerning what values were appropriate to each art and in which Onishi’s early work from 2004 is intricately woven.

The issue concerned the Quattrocento conception of the two sculptural modes: that of free-standing, fully three-dimensional sculpture and low relief sculpture.  Leonardo da Vinci thought that the sculptor may claim low relief as a form of painting principally because it could be used to tell a narrative and operated in a near two-dimensional space impenetrable to the viewer.  In essence, low relief sculpture could be understood as a kind of ‘fat painting’ and virtuosic painters such as Andrea Mantegna could play on the conflation of sculptural and painterly values in grisaille works like his ‘Samson and Delilah’ (c.1505).   While the modern conception of sculpture favors the autonomy of the free-standing work operating in the real space of the world shared with the viewer, Nobuaki reengages these two sculptural modes and their relation to painting.

Yushitessen (Barbed Wire)’ (2006) (detail)

Yushitessen (Barbed Wire)’ (2006) (detail)

Yushitessen (Barbed Wire)’ (2006) (detail)

He did this by casting conventional quotidian items such as a pen or a rubber glove for his ‘Infinity Gray’ series from around 2004 and painted them with virtuosic flare so that those objects were visually indistinguishable from the object copied.  In as much as the superlative painting techniques were addressed to the eye, the technical craftsmanship, the portability of the cast objects, their original utilitarian functions and their evident touch-ability, were addressed to the hand.  Onishi left these visual illusions incomplete, however, and at some point in each work he would let the coloring fade to the clear resin beneath which gave the object its form as in ‘Yushitessen (Barbed Wire) (2006).  The point, ostensibly, was to show up the illusion for what it was – an artful fabrication.

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006) (detail)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006) (detail)

‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006) (detail)

These ideas were honed in his ‘Dress’ series along with the pursuit of repetition.  An example is his ‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006), cast from the concrete tetrapod structures placed along the shore board to limit erosion.  Onishi left his sculpture uncapped at the leg-ends so spectators could see inside the structure to its smooth white surface although the outer surface was painted in trompe l’oeil fashion.  In this sense the painted surface was the one common to painting or low relief sculpture though assembled into a three dimensional free standing sculpture.  The four legs were originally cast from the same single leg and then conjoined into its final structure.   What Nobuaki effectively achieved in ‘Shoha Burokku’ was an almost literal copy of the real world that made clear its artifice through its hollowness.

‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) (detail)

‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) (detail)

‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) (detail)

Onishi’s most recent work has turned to championing the value of the copy over the original.  In the work ‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) the artist continues to distinguish originals from his copies by inserting his hand-crafted visually identical bananas and ice cubes among the real things and filming the decay of those real things while his own fabrications retain their pristine forms and colors.  The point, in part, is that the inorganic copies are infinitely more visually pleasing in the long term than the perishable organic originals and these engage, tangentially, through their subject matter, the 19th century shift from the art/nature opposition to the art/craft distinction in his ceramic works.

'Pottery 1’ (2009)

'Pottery 1’ (2009)

'Pottery 1’ (2009)

Pottery 2’ (2009)

Pottery 2’ (2009)

Pottery 2’ (2009)

In ‘Pottery 1’ (2009) and ‘Pottery 2’ (2009) Onishi has set aside the fabrication of the living world and taken to producing ceramics in authentic materials. ‘Pottery 1’ comprises four small dishes arranged side by side and ‘Pottery 2’ three mugs arranged similarly.  In the contemporaneous work ‘Chain/ banana, ice’ the subjects referred to their originals but in these ceramics it makes little sense to ask which is the original on which the others were based and which the copies. Each plate and cup is virtually indistinguishable from the others. Onishi has arrived at the easy duplication that many take to be one of the essential qualities of craft.  He too has arrived at the rigid craft distinctions proposed by the philosopher R. G. Collingwood who described craft as a predetermined result through means-ends relations such as planning and execution.  The exhibition title ‘Chain’ under which Onishi exhibited these ceramic works serves also to confirm such relations as the title implies both a succession of events leading to the present works from 2004 and also a concept of ‘servitude’ in which the creative process is circumscribed to the reproducible rather than the one off original.

The shift to craft becomes a way for Onishi to resolve the tensions of original and copy that had inhered in his sculptural works.  Craft, because it obviates such tensions due to the reverence for replication, becomes conceptually alluring.  Onishi has moved, then, from early works that cast copies from originals in which he had left the visual illusion incomplete to visually complete ceramics produced with authentic raw materials which are all conceived of as reproductions from the outset without reference to an original.

Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.

Images courtesy of NOMART, INC, Osaka.

Can a copy be creative? Craft in Japan

Ise Grand Shrine, which is completely re-build every 20 years

Ise Grand Shrine, which is completely re-build every 20 years

The Japanese concept of dentō kōgei ( ‘traditional art crafts’) recognises the practice of reproducing classic works as an ideal of ‘formative expression’. By contrast, the studio craft movement of the West celebrated originality. Does the reverence for the copy in traditional Japanese culture inhibit its entry into modern craft?

Two articles in issue 3.1 cover this question:

  • Kida Takuya ‘Traditional Art Crafts (Dento¯ Ko¯ gei): From reproductions to original works’
  • Christine Guth ‘The multiple modalities of the copy in traditional Japanese crafts’

Join our guest bloggers to consider ways in which the process of re-making can be a meaningful activity in itself.