The unseen masters behind Japanese prints

Looking at Hokusai's "Weeping Cherry and Bullfinch," with its sensitive precision of line, it is easy to forget that a traditional Japanese print never came directly from the artist's hand, like a drawing.

These woodblock prints were produced by a band of exhaustively trained specialist craftsmen. All the artist provided was the design.

As a very young man, Hokusai trained as a block-cutter. But his two- or three-years' training (a 10-year apprenticeship was required) did not qualify him to cut blocks either for his own or other artists' works.

Over his long career, he can be credited with a range of powerfully designed prints. His images of great waves, of waterfalls, of Mt. Fuji are among the most popular.

Nevertheless, without the skills of the intervening craftsmen, Hokusai's ideas could have been rendered ordinary or mediocre - or even botched. With each print, first came the design. Then a copyist prepared a detailed version. Next, specialist block-cutters made the various blocks needed: color blocks and line blocks.

The actual hand printing was the work of another group of specialists. All worked for a publisher, commercial or private.

The idea of the artist printing his own prints did not start to take root in Japan until the first years of the 20th century. Hokusai lived from 1760 to 1845. Although he was aware of Western art, his work developed long-established Japanese traditions and also - as this flower-and-bird print shows - harked back to Chinese art.

Hokusai made a virtue out of the high degree of stylization required by the Japanese printmaking process. Forms and movements - in this case, of mossy branch, hanging bird, and blossoms in stages from tight bud to full flower - are brought wonderfully alive by linear finesse.

But this apparent spontaneity results, in fact, from much meticulous calculation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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