The Art of Engraving in Japan


Three men contribute to the production of a printed plate – the designer, who originates the subject represented, who gives it form and life; the engraver, who transports the design on to wood or copper ; and the printer, who produces from the wood or metal the finished print. In Europe the designer and the engraver are generally artists, and the printer is a workman who takes from a machine any number of uniform proofs. In Japan the printer, equally with the designer and engraver, is an artist, working with an artist’s taste and fancy. Having only the most simple means and materials, and no machine, he knows no repetition or stiffness, but in the choice and mixing of the colours on the plate he makes endless variations, and so avoids all monotony Or uniformity of, taking those where the three artists — designer, engraver, and printer—have put their very best work, one finds many specimens perfect in their way, and which are practically unsurpassable. In engraving, the Japanese have always held to certain methods, which give to their productions a certain special originality of their own ; they have confined themselves to the use of wood on which to engrave designs, which have been drawn by the artists themselves by means of the brush.

When a European writes he employs a pen, and occasionally he may use one for drawing ; but more often he uses a pencil ; but when he paints, he invariably takes a brush. In Japan and China it is not at all the same ; there, when one writes, draws, or paints, the implement is the same—the brush, held in the hand, raised up over the paper.

The result of the constant use of the same instrument is great dexterity in the handling of it ; and as the strokes of a brush filled with ink or colour make lines and strokes that one cannot alter, certainty of touch and boldness of hand are the essential points that every artist has been obliged to seek after and obtain.

The paper on which the design has been traced having been glued to the wood on which it is to be cut, the engraver sets to work to reproduce in the wood all the suppleness and fulness which the design on the paper had received from the use of the brush as an implement. Japanese engravers have arrived at such cleverness in this respect that even an experienced eye can hardly detect designs direct from the brush. When one adds that Japanese engravings are as a rule taken on the very finest paper, and that in the first state they are of great rarity, one can understand that they combine all the necessary conditions to charm the eye of an artist, and to excite the covetousness of collectors.

The art of engraving on wood came to Japan from China. As a means of illustrating books it is comparatively modern ; the Iskmonogatari of 1604 is the first remarkable specimen of it. It is an illustrated romance. The engravings in it are in an archaic and rather clumsy style, but already showin conception and execution the characteristics of the art as it is in its present development.

During the seventeenth century books with engravings were rare, until the time of IshigawaMoronobu, who flourished from 1680 to about 1700. Moronobu has treated very nearly all the styles to which the art at that time could be applied; he illustrated romances—” meishos“—or descriptions of countries, a series of books with plates, some of types of the Japanese people, others of beasts and plants, very realistically given or employed as decorative motives. His style, although archaic, is full of force and movement. It is, as it were, the entrance to the study of engraving in Japan.

The impulse given by Moronobu was never to die away. During the seventeenth century artists who illustrated books followed each other without interruption, becoming more and more numerous. We must in the first rank place Sukénobu, who produced his best works in 1730. He applied himself to the representation of Japanese women under all aspects, and occupying themselves in every way ; and as stuffs were at that date highly decorated, so the women he has drawn are enveloped in robes showing a wondrous diversity of motives and colours.

Sukénobu had pupils and successors who bring us down to the close of the eighteenth century. The art of printing in colours, already for some time originated and perfected, was now adapted for book illustration. From Moronobu, by a series of intermediates down to Hokusai, one can connect chronologically a library of books or albums of engravings of every kind of shape, style, or impression, representing a world very original and lively.

Engraving, properly speaking—the printed image on a loose sheet developed itself side by side with the book or album. So the most ancient specimens of the art of printing in Japan are engravings. These were religious images of the roughest description that were sold in the temples of Buddha, and which represented that god or some local saint. Quite at the end of the seventeenth century, under the impulse given by Moronobu, Japanese engraving entered upon a phase which was shortly to be greatly enlarged—the reproduction of the faces of actors and scenes in the theatre. The first specimens of these were printed in black, like all the engravings of the seventeenth century ; but shortly after they were touched with a brush, and then, between 1710 and 1720, they commenced to be printed in one or two tones of colour.

Coloured engravings now made rapid progress, and in the course of the eighteenth century arrived at great finish. First of all there are the Torii, who succeeded each other and form a complete school. They produced figures of actors printed in a sombre tone, but very vigorous, and which must form the foundation of every collection of coloured prints. After them KatsugawaShunshô, the master of Hokusai, with his two pupils, Shunyei and Shunko, have cleverly depicted actors and their contemporaries.

Extending coloured engraving beyond the theatrical world, powerful artists adapted it to the portrayal of feminine figures, popular scenes, social gatherings, scenes from romances, history, battles, and lastly to landscape. It is thus that at the end of the eighteenth century, from 1770 to 1800, Japanese coloured prints arrive at such perfection with a series of great designers, who by the fulness and purity of their outlines, and the harmony of their composition, have left many admirable works ; notably such men as Harunobu, Kionaga, Yeishi, Toyokuni, the elder, and lastly Utamaro.

Every one of these Ukiyo-e artists has his peculiarity and possesses certain qualities; but if it were necessary to choose one from the others for the first place, I should select Kionaga. His strong style, free from all mannerisms, grasps life in a searching manner. The variety of attitude, the ease of pose, the facial expression, and the broad treatment of the landscape serving for background, make his work very important. The larger coloured

engravings of the present century lose the great elegance which characterised those of the last century. They have not the same harmony of lines and soberness of colouring ; but in spite of having become entirely popular art, they still maintain great power and vitality, when treated by Toyokuni, the younger, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, and beyond all Hiroshigé, the artist of landscape. Whilst larger coloured prints were losing some of their refinement, another species full ofdelicacy arose and developed itself. I allude to those refined compositions called Surimonos, of which artists, in the earlier half of this century,produced a very small number of proofs, and which they gave to their friends or distributed among the members of the little tea-drinking societies on the occasion of certain fêtes and anniversaries. Printed in the most careful way, first in quiet and subdued tones, and later with metallic lustre added, these surimonos were unequalled and unique in the annals of the printer’s art.

Hokusai — born 1760, died 1849 — arrived as a sort of giant to crown the art of printing in Japan. He appeared at an early age under the name of Shunrô, and as he laboured without ceasing until his death, his works extend to a period of over fifty years. He found it possible also to take up every style of Japanese engraving, so his productions are of an unlimited and surprising extent. Illustrations for romances, history, poetry, from thetiny popular books to the editions of forty, fifty, and eighty volumes ; endless books and albums, showing in every phase life in Japan; men, beasts, and landscape, and selections of ornament intended for trade purposes ; instruction by example in the art of drawing, large coloured plates in every style, endless surimonos, notices, maps, and industrial engravings ; —Hokusai has treated every form with equal success. His work, overflowing with life and movement, is full of truth ; it includes popular comicalities and pathetic scenes—the grotesque and the terrible. His work constitutes a monument complete in itself, which embraces everything to be seen by the eye or invented in the brain of a Japanese.


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