25 July 2014

Book Review: Japanese Woodblock Prints

Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks: 1680 - 1900 by Andreas Marks; published by Tuttle Publishing

If you've done any research on Japanese woodblock prints, especially 20th century prints, you've probably come across titles from Tuttle Publishing. Tuttle was established in 1948 by Charles E. Tuttle, who served under General MacArthur’s post-war staff in Japan with the primary mission of reviving the Japanese Publishing Industry, and the company's reputation has always hinged on its specialty in books rooted in Asian culture, language, and history. It happens that two Tuttle books have come into my possession this past month, one new and one older, so I thought I'd use the next few blog posts to do a short series of book reviews.

This book, Japanese Woodblock Prints, is a relatively new book from Tuttle, published in 2012, and is a broad overview of woodblock artists and publishers in Edo (Tokyo) between 1680 and 1900. I should say up front that as a maker of woodblock prints rather than a collector of them, my knowledge of classical ukiyo-e prints is woefully lacking, and my own preferences in Japanese art lean toward the so-called sosaku (creative) prints of the mid 20th century.  I would not recommend this book for people who are already deeply involved in collecting or studying ukiyo-e prints, but for someone at my level the book is highly informative. It would also be very useful for a beginning collector who wanted help identifying ukiyo-e prints.

Like most art books, Japanese Woodblock Prints is lavishly illustrated with over 500 prints reproduced on high quality semi-gloss paper, but the distinctive thing about this book is the way it's structured. After an informative and well-researched introduction to the culture of Edo woodblock printmaking, the book is divided into two sections: Artists and Publishers. The Artists section contains chronologically ordered biographies of fifty of the most famous print designers with representative examples of their work, followed by a Publishers section that offers the histories of 49 different Edo publishers, a unique focus in this genre. This focus on publishers means the book can be a valuable guide for print identification, although it would have added to the book’s value to have printed enlargements of the publishers’ marks and seals. I appreciated seeing the artists' work presented in chronological order, as it’s interesting to see developments in both technique and style over the years, but the Publishers section could just as well have been presented alphabetically as chronologically for easier reference.

Unfortunately, the illustration captions are perfunctory (date, title, size, source). I would have appreciated some explanation from the author about how and why he selected the prints he chose, and although there’s some general information about woodblock techniques in the introduction—tan-e (orange and black designs) and urushi-e (lacquer prints) are mentioned—as a printmaker I would have enjoyed more in-depth information about techniques used by individual artists. Technique identification can also aid in dating a print, which again would have enhanced the value of the book. But overall this is a beautiful book, and the publisher section makes it stand out.

Next post I’ll take a look at an older Tuttle book that’s chock full of Japanese woodblock techniques.

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