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Look at this typical shin-hanga image ...

Posted by Dave Bull at 4:14 PM, May 23, 2005

The series of prints that include the one shown in this image (click to popup an enlargement) was recently described by an expert on the subject as: "... containing the essence of shin hanga ..." Those of us who know something of the history of the production and distribution of these prints however, may wonder what that statement really means. At the time of the production of such prints (early 20th century), scenery like this was already cliched and out-of-date, but Hasegawa and Watanabe, the two major shin-hanga producers, knew what their customers wanted - images of Japan that matched the 'exotic' and 'quaint' mental impressions that they had of this country - and by all reports, they were extremely successful at it. How though, can we now seriously give any credence to an art form when we know that its single apparent purpose was to suck dollars out of tourists?


Following comment posted by: Tom Kristensen on May 23, 2005 4:20 PM

Shin Hanga were produced for the export market and were designed to cater to Western taste. I agree. This fact does not have any bearing on the artistic merit of the work. Art museums are full of work produced to please the eye of the public, the church and the patron. Moreover, Japanese woodblock production has always been tailored by the collaborative efforts of publisher, carver, printer and artist, for the sole purpose of selling. To discount Shin Hanga, is to discount the vast bulk of woodblock prints. To attempt a separation between art and commerce is naive. Whether the scenery is cliched, is again, besides the point. The Japanese print tradition is built on copying and repackaging. Pictorial elements and print techniques drift along in a slow evolution of style. Shin Hanga did represent a break from the past, but carried the traditional approach forward.

Following comment posted by: Joe Sheridan on May 23, 2005 4:23 PM

“Mental impressions” been created by humankind as long as we have craved them and that has been throughout our history. Every culture produced images “idealized” for religious, political or financial purposes. The publishers of Ukiyo-e had their targeted markets. There were collectors of “strong” Sumo wrestlers, “beautiful” Kabuki actors and “picturesque” views by Hiroshige. Utamaro’s shunga prints were certainly directed towards a narrow paying cliental. Shin Hanga breathed new life into the rich Japanese woodblock tradition after it had undergone the stress of Western influence and technological innovation. Cultural stresses can be witnessed in some Shin Hanga prints. The images reveal a truth about the artist, the craftsman, their time and the people portrayed in them. While no art movement produces only masterpieces, Shin Hanga did have its Masters. They still speak to us from their time and space through their beautiful art.

Following comment posted by: Julio Rodriguez on May 23, 2005 4:25 PM

How though, can we now seriously give any credence to an art form when we know that its single apparent purpose was to suck dollars out of tourists?

Dave, I think that shin-hanga prints can stand on their own regardless of the motives for their creation. If the image has a good design, is well made and is pleasing to the eyes...then it certainly passes some basic test forgiving this genre credence. Does every print has to make an artistic or political statement ? Does it have to break new ground ? or can it just be something beautiful that exists for people to enjoy ? While we may focus on shin-hanga sales to tourists it can also be said that this same popularity that created a profitable market for Watanabe and others also made the shin-hanga prints available to regular folks worlwide...and is this not the reason why we make prints and not paintings ?

Following comment posted by: Matt Laine on May 23, 2005 4:26 PM

To me the whole matter of worthiness of a piece of art (Art?) is it's effectiveness in generating an  aesthetic experience for the viewer.To me it's that simple.

Following comment posted by: Maria Arango on May 23, 2005 4:27 PM

Historically woodcut/woodblock prints have been made with the purpose of printing cheap flyers, advertising pleasure businesses, "votivas" or prayer cards and playing cards. Recently we held an exchange in which playing cards were now magically transformed into "art" because we say it is. One of the exchangers is mulling the idea of transforming them back into printed objects for wider distribution. Why not?!

In the modern art world, the original purpose or the tradition of an art or craft form seems completely detached and irrelevant to its value. Collectors collect, decorators decorate, consumers purchase...and the value of the object is and always will be what someone is willing to pay for it with near complete disregard for craftsmanship or original creative purpose. This is why many financially successful modern artists continually seek faster, less laborious methods of producing images. The image, in art, is everything, and it is why the world needs artists.

My .02c (I think)

Following comment posted by: Mary Brooks-Mueller on May 23, 2005 4:29 PM

I'm a little late in my reply.

Dutch immigrant, journalist Van Loom states: "The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in congress." (Hendrik Willem Van Loon). Van Loom was a frontline war correspondent during the Russian revolution and World War I, yet afterwards authored a fictional biography of his home artists, Rembrandt. On the one hand, he reported on real, immediate life in all it's force and detail, while as well, capitalizing on the fame of another via literature. The paradox of "is it art or is it the money?" I see as a false argument that demands a purity of intentions among artists that does not pressure other professions. Selling art doesn't demean it, it promotes it.
Mary Ann

Following comment posted by: Sharri LaPierre on May 23, 2005 4:30 PM

I'm a late comer to this discussion, but cannot let anything pass without tossing in my two bits worth.

Is it art? seems to me to have been a question forever. I think where we get into trouble is when we start trying to make "art" with the thought "will this sell?" instead of following our muse and doing our thing and hoping (privately, of course :~) that someone else might like it enough to put their cash on the barrel head. In the case of the shin hanga they were probably thinking the former and once in a while they happened to hit a real winner. I don't think that lessens the merit of the work, it just lessens the chances that it will be a masterpiece, but it may still be good art, or very good art. In the case of people involved in the production of the shin hanga I suspect they were just so darned good at what they were doing that they rarely missed. In my mind, their purpose is kind of beside the point as much of it stands alone as very good art, but it also serves as documentation of an era. My definition of very good art is: does it follow the principles and elements of design, (and if it doesn't does it break them in a way that works), is the craftsmanship up to snuff & if not is that also done in a way that works, AND does it have that extra special "wow" ingredient. That's that elusive little rascal you can never quite wrap a definition around, but you know it when you see it. (Under the craftsmanship mentioned above, I've seen some prints where the color was off-register, but it amplified the piece - in fact, if it had been perfect the work would have been good, but not have been as powerful. Maybe it was intentional, or maybe it was a happy accident! Or, some of the German Expressionist prints were very roughly cut, but boy! do they pack "wow".)

There you have it! Exactly two bits worth on the monetary exchange.

Following comment posted by: Julio Rodriguez on May 25, 2005 6:52 AM

The Shin-Hanga prints with their origin close to one hundred years ago may have slipped into that 'romantic' ideal that 'just because' is an old art work it must be good art. Will such a fate befall the Sosaku-hanga prints 20,40 or 50 years from now ?

For many of us on this discussion thread the feelings are probably mixed. Certainly as printmakers we admire the masterful technique and the laborious collaboration put forth to make the Shin-Hanga prints. When you look at the number of blocks and impressions used by Hiroshi Yoshida, the use of multiple grey blocks to obtain that watercolor feel and the scrutiny under which he ran his workshop and his laborers you get the feeling that he must have though of his prints as much more than for just tourist or export sales. Remember that he got into the woodblock print field quite late in his career as an artist after first establishing himself as a painter.

As collectors we have become familiar with names like Hasui, Yoshida, Shinsui, Miller, Lum, etc and understand the rising value of these artists...but do I like every print made by these artists ? Of course not, I have my favorites. Would I purchase a print I don't like by one of these artists just for the monetary aspect ? Perhaps...probably if the price is right.

I don't seem to dwell too much as to why the prints were made or their intended market...or even if they are 'real' art. I am more curious as to the success of the experiment to revive a dying craft and what lessons Watanabe-san and his contemporaries might reveal to help us do the same now.

Julio Rodriguez

Following comment posted by: John Center on May 27, 2005 1:15 PM

During 4/5 of the time of print making both in the west and in Japan the object of the print was often reproductive and/or just normal commerical printing. It is only after the printing processes stopped being used as commerical printing did they start becoming a part of the "cult of the original". I find the craftsmanship of Daves prints to be of the highest standard which is a great reason for there esistance.

Following comment posted by: Lauren on June 1, 2005 1:11 AM

You know, compared with some of the other sh-- er, stuff that gets produced to suck dollars from tourists, I'd much rather have a woodblock print, whether it's shin hanga or some re-carved Hiroshige such as my dad collected in Okinawa at the end of WW II.

The problem of the romanticized view of Japan is different, because such views can keep people from recognizing the plusses and minuses of their own times. (I think of the romanticization of the Old South in the United States in this regard.) But the tendency of people to look at the present and think of the past is not new. The poet Bashou, in 1689, undertook a journey to see famous sites from old poems and stories, and his book, The Narrow Road to Oku, is full of allusions to the famous, romantic past. It was very popular then, and has remained a best-selling classic--so much so that Yoshitoshi did a woodblock of Bashou talking to some farmers in 100 Views of the Moon, another work created for mere money. So, why not give people what they want?

Following comment posted by: Paul Ritscher on June 3, 2005 3:09 PM

I think we forget from our vantage-point in art history that previous art movements happen as a reaction or a response to more traditional arts of their own period. The shin-hanga movement was a huge and revolutionary change from the traditional printmaking in Japan, embracing western art in a way that had virually been prohibited prior to that. Because of the closed culture in Japan this period of discovery crossed both ways. The Japanese method of color printing was embraced by European and American artists just as Japanese artists embraced western styles. These artists did not operate in a void and as communication became better between the two art worlds the influences became more profound. I still find all of Yoshida Hiroshi's prints to be spectacular for design and color and sensitivity of subject matter - but he perhaps more than any other fully embraced western art. Hasui or Koitsu or Shinsui altho equally masterful retained more of an Asian traditional feel to their work. The western artists that embraced color woodblock at the beginning of the last century went so far as to study brush drawing in the attempt to capture that fluid simplicity of line (none better than Allen Seaby). But did not limit their explorations to only imitation.
Yoshida Hiroshi put it rather succinctly in his book "We no longer have to walk along the Tokaido line, wear sandals, and carry mushroom umbrellas, as pictured in the prints by Hiroshige. But if an artist should be interested in making such a picture, he may do so as the subjects are concerned, but he should not attempt to treat them in the spirit of the Edo peroid, which has already passed. What we are concerned with in this book is how to make wood-block colour prints of the present day, and good ones at that." Kudos to Dave for carrying the past into the future with thoughtfulness and respect for tradition. But I also salute all the artists who cared to experiment with the medium that has brought us to this point.

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