L.S. has two Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshi Yoshida: "The Temple Yard" and "The Toshogu Shrine." Since the market today is soft for these works of fine art, Japanese woodblock prints are wise purchases. Indeed, all the value indicators are in place. By virtue of the delicate medium, the prints may decrease in quantity/quality over time. They are a niche market, yet most sellers do not have the research tools to price them correctly, so bargains abound! I often find these works in thrift stores for under $20, which makes for an opportunity to start a collection of underappreciated works on paper.
And what a storied tradition! Woodblock print techniques in Japan date to the eighth century, where the technology was used for multiple Buddhist texts. The "word" woodblock was supplanted by the illustrated woodblock print in the 18th century. The key to understanding this genre is the emphasis on narration — the image serves a story and is presented as a visual text, horizontally, in sets; seen together, the images read like a play.
The apex creation of the Japanese woodblock print are the large (30 to 100 separate illustrations) portfolios by one artist. The smallest series are in twos or threes. I have seen many sets of three (triptych) dismembered and sold separately, as each of the series are framed (in the Western style) separately. Another reason to collect sets of three or, even more fortuitously, the large portfolios is the importance of keeping the narrative set together. The complete, unframed portfolios are so rare they are very strong on the market.
Originally, these nishiki-e were hand-colored after the paper was inked with outlines in black on mulberry paper. Breakthrough technology after 1765 enabled the new technique of multiple block printing, a separate block carved for each color. The process was laborious. An image was sketched on transparent paper, glued to blocks of cherry wood. A carver cut in negative. The lines and wide area of colors are the raised areas, called relief carving. Up to 20 separate blocks struck different colors. L.S. might unglaze her prints to see if the margins around the image show two "hash" marks, which are the telltale "register" (alignment) marks seen only on an original woodblock print.
The harvesting and printing of the paper was also laborious. The inner bark of the mulberry tree was used to create it, and it was very strong and absorbent to color. Up to 20 blocks were pressed to paper with pressure, using a pad to the image's back.
As illustrations in the portfolio form of Japanese woodblock prints go, perhaps none is better known than Hiroshige's 1852 and 1858 series of "Twenty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," created in response to an earlier narrative portfolio by the great artist Katsushika Hokusai, "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830-32)," and his subsequent book, "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji." Many consider these portfolios the classics of Japanese woodblocks. Perhaps the best-known image is Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa."
L.S.'s two prints were created in the late 1930s and bear the hallmark of sentimentality, perhaps because the Japanese feared the changes in their traditional way of life during the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937-45. The artist Yoshida pictured a temple and shrine, depicting traditional kimono-wearers amid cherry blossoms. L.S.'s prints are overtly traditional, unlike those of the golden era of the woodblock print with their visual directness.
The future hinted at change. Such sentimental subjects failed to attract a growing number of mid-20th century Japanese artists. As the 20th century evolved, another school of artists was influenced by the abstraction of the West. This modernist school is valuable today, perhaps because of the strong graphic quality that dovetails with midcentury-modern interiors.
Another clue to the value of L.S.'s prints is the artist's signature (written in Western alphabet in pencil), in the lower-right margin. Classically, Hiroshige and Hokusai signed in the print, in a vertical, framed box called a "chop."
Yoshida continued the woodblock narrative tradition of a creation of a portfolio of concurrent images. L.S.'s print series included "Country Holiday," "Toshogu Shrine," "Sarasawa Pond," "Plum Gateway," "Hirosake Castle," "Shokozan," "Benten Shrine in Nezumigaseki," "Gion Shrine Gate," "Yasaka Shrine," "The Way to Kasuga Shrine," "The Kamo River," "The Chikurin (Bamboo Grove)" and, traditionally, "The Tea House in Azalea Garden."
L.S.'s images are not as valuable as the woodblocks from the golden era (late-18th to mid-19th century), bringing $300 to $400 each, tops. What a bargain! Another reason to collect these traditional, romantic images, nostalgic in the face of modernity.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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