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