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.

4 thoughts on “A Copy as Woodblock Print by Claire Cuccio

  1. Do you have an approximate idea of how long it takes to create a replica? I assume that it requires quite a bit of time with only three assistant. Thanks in advance,


  2. I am interested in hearing more about Claire Cuccio’s current work.

  3. Daniel, apologies for the delayed reply. These days local publishers typically
    place orders with Sato’s workshop, highlighted above, for 70 reproductions of a
    particular Edo period print work at a given time. If the publisher provides
    previously carved blocks, which is a common occurrence, a typical 12-18
    block print from which 12-20 or more impressions are pulled for a total of 70 prints can take 3-3.5 days to complete in the hands of a single printer, who works roughly 8 hour a day and has honed both speed and precision. If new blocks are to be carved by a single carver, the total time required would extend to about two weeks more depending upon the complexity of the design and the total number of blocks involved. In contrast, during the Edo period popular multiblock, multicolor prints could be turned out overnight with the aid of a team of carvers, who had cultivated different specialties in carving everything from strands of hair to noses and chin lines, and another team of printers.

  4. Pingback: Sato Mokuhanga Studio in Kyoto | Japan Study Abroad

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