There are Many Items on Ebay which are Called Original Japanese Woodblock Prints but finding One that is Described Accurately is Not always an Easy Task. I have Tried to Write an Over View of Japanese Woodblocks which will Help buyers to Distinguish Genuine Japanese Woodblock Prints, and Authenticate Original Ukiyo-e, 19th Century, Woodblocks from Miss Described Modern Reproductions.
WHAT IS A WOODBLOCK PRINT ?
A Woodblock Print is Created by Carving the required design onto a piece of wood, coating the finished "blocks" with paint or dye and then rubbing the paper which is to be patterned onto the woodblock to transfer the design. Where more than one colour is required more woodblocks need to be carved with the shapes of the different coloured portions raised in order to transfer the coloured ink to the correct places on the paper.
The best ways to see if a picture is a woodblock print is by first looking at the coloured areas and outlines with a very strong magnifying glass. If the picture is a photographic copy you will see tiny dots over all the surface. If there are no dots it is either a painting, an engraving or lithograph of some sort, a screen print or a woodblock. A Woodblock Print will have what is Called Bleed Through on the Reverse Side where most of the colours and outlines of the scene can be distinguished. It will also have tiny indentations in the Washi where the outlines of the actual woodblock carving has been Impressed into the Paper.
SELLERS: Remember if you want to MAINTAIN ANY INTEGRITY it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to BE CERTAIN you are offering a GENUINE WOODBLOCK PRINT and to PROVIDE ADEQUATE EVIDENCE of your research in Asserting that it is an ORIGINAL.
BUYERS: If a seller does not do this in their description ask to see extra pictures of the back to find Bleed Through or ask for more details to find out if it is Genuine. If the Seller fails to do so DO NOT BID ON THE ITEM.
The Woodblock Schools of Japan used a paper called Washi, created from the bark of Mulberry Trees as this is very strong and water proof. Some of The Great Historical Schools of Woodblock Artists are known as :
The Primitives, including artists like Moronobu, Norfusa and Sukenobu
The Torii School, including Harunobu, Kiyomasu and Shigenobu.
The Utagawa School, including the Founder Utagawa Toyoharu (1735 to 1814), Toyokuni, One, Two and Three, the last also known as Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige (The First), Kunichika, Yoshiiku and Kuniyasu.
The Osaka School, including Yoshitaki, Shuntei and Ashihiro.
The Yokohama Artists, including Yoshikazi, Kunimaru, Yoshitoshi and both Hiroshige the Second and the Third.
There are many other artists in each of these schools and other schools but this Guide is only meant to be a basic reference and so it is impossible to go into greater detail.
The training of a Woodblock Artist consisted of Teaching the student how to create pictures which were able to be transformed into a woodblock print without loosing their basic form, perspective and detail and this is not such an easy thing to do. So the great artists were, and still are, extremely highly regarded for not only their artistic taste and creativity but also for the way in which they could interpret a scene specifically for use as a woodblock print.
HOW TO AUTHENTICATE AN ORIGINAL JAPANESE WOODBLOCK PRINT
There are a large number of Antique and Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints available on Ebay and for the beginner it can be very confusing when trying to distinguish between an Original Woodblock and a Later Reproduction.
The term Original, when used in describing an antique Japanese Print, means
1. It Was Designed by the Artist whose signature appears on the Print
2. It Was Printed and Published During that Artist's Lifetime.
For example if a Print is Described as an Original Hiroshige Then it Must Have a Recorded Signature of that Famous Artist and have been Printed and Published During his Lifetime. Remember that there is Hiroshige then there is Hiroshige the Second and Third and if someone describes a woodblock as an Original Hiroshige it must be the work of the First Hiroshige other wise it is incorrectly described.
Ando Hiroshige was born in Edo in 1797 and Died in 1858. When he was 12 Years Old both his Parents Died and Two Years later he Joined the Famous Utagawa Painting School under Toyohiro Utagawa. In 1812 he was given permission to use the Utagawa name in conjunction with his own.
Hiroshige created a very large number of landscape prints, in a number of different series so once a solid reference base which includes all the individual prints in all of these series is found it is not difficult to distinguish Genuine Original Prints from the thousands of later reproductions.
His signature is easy to recognize and did not take many different forms although it is almost the same as those his students Hiroshige Two and Three used after his death. The work of the latter Hiroshiges is however very easy to recognize, even when they were recreating some of his landscape series as their drawing and perspective is much different and the later, aniline colours that were used in the printing process are obvious.
AN ORIGINAL HIROSHIGE WOODBLOCK PRINT 1830s
AN ADEQUATE DESCRIPTION OF THIS ORIGINAL WOODBLOCK would Include This Original Japanese Woodblock Print By Hiroshige Shows Kameyama, Station 47, of his Famous Series The Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido Trail. It is From the Kyoka Edition, Published by Sanoki in the Late 1830s and this Publishers Mark can be seen in the Bottom of the Left Margin. It Must also Include the Exact Size.
Less easy for the layman are the many thousands of Twentieth Century reproductions of his landscape series which have been re-carved by modern day wood carvers and are still re-carved today. It is these reproductions that are most often miss described and falsely represented which are likely to lure an unsuspecting purchaser into thinking they have found an Original when in fact it is a poor imitation.
All of Hiroshige's famous series have been documented and many can be found on the internet. On one site the Famous 53 Stations of the Tokaido Trail series can be seen in its 13 different versions dating between 1831 and 1857 and if someone is looking at a Hiroshige woodblock it is an easy matter to check the authenticity by searching this site for the appropriate series and comparing the individual print. Make sure to check every detail from the exact size and format to the signature, publishers mark and any censor seals. Also be assured that the colours of Original Woodblocks from these series can not be compared to later reproductions.
These later woodblock copies are still Woodblock Prints but they are NOT ORIGINAL Hiroshige woodblocks and so their value and importance is minimal, collectable appeal virtually nil and their decorative worth mediocre.
Another Very Popular and Highly Collectable Artist is Utagawa Kunisada. He was born in the Honjo district of Edo in 1786. He entered the school of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), the leading actor-print designer of his time, around 1800 as apprentice in the age of fourteen. His first printed works began to appear in late 1807. When Toyokuni II died in 1835, ten years after the master, Kunisada was entitled to use the name Toyokuni III and his recorded signatures in versions sometimes with both names number over 200. Not all have so far been documented. He was one of the most highly respected artists of his time and he died in 1865.
An Original Kunisada Woodblock must bear One of the Signatures Kunisada Used During his Lifetime and Must Have Been Published During his Lifetime. One excellent site where a great number of his signatures have been documented and arranged in chronological order is entitled The Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) Project. This site has a vast amount of information about this artist and his work and is invaluable for anyone interested in his prints.
Once the signature is identified as being described correctly then one must establish how old the print is. In some cases this can be done once the signature is found as many examples were used only for short periods of time. If the signature is a common one or he used it for a longer period then the age must be found from translating the censors seal or finding a date on the woodblock. The first option is the simplest but both require adequate reference material.
Detail of a Kunisada Signature, Censors Seal and Publishers Mark These should be described as: The Signature Seen in the Red Ground Toshidama Cartouche reads Toyokuni Ga and alongside this Signature is the Round Aratame, meaning Examined, Censors Seal used between 1853 and 1857. Below this Seal is the Trademark for the Publisher Yamamotoya Heikichi.
When a seller Authenticates a Woodblock as Being Original in this Manner all his Descriptions can be Checked on the Internet to Ensure they are Correct.
One reputable book on Japanese prints is entitled "The Prints of Japan" written by Frank A Turk, first published by Arco Publications in 1966 but there are many others. Be sure when searching for books on the subject that that the table of contents suits your reference needs and the book is published by a professional publishing company. A self published book lacks credibility as there has been no professional editing and so much information may be erroneous.
The only other way to establish the age is by finding similar prints on the internet and trying to match the signature and censors seal or seals of the woodblock are you trying to authenticate.
COMMON FALSE DESCRIPTIONS ON EBAY
When looking at Woodblocks on Ebay check first the date, if one is given in the title or description. If an item is described as an Original Hiroshige then dated C1910, C1880 or any other date later than 1858, this is an obvious deceit as Hiroshige died in 1858 and shows the seller is purposely trying to miss describe the item or has no knowledge of the subject. If an item is called an Original Hiroshige in the title and in the description says it is an Original "in the style of" or "after" some artist this is also obviously a Deceptive Description AND if a Seller says a woodblock is "By" Hiroshige but does not give the evidence to support it as being dated before 1858 it is Also Grossly Miss Described as it is a Copy.
Items described as Original Hiroshige Showa Era - this is the period between 1926 and 1988 - must also be described incorrectly as Hiroshige died 70 to 100 years earlier.
Some sellers may call an item a Woodblock Print and then justify their description by saying that the picture has a piece of paper attached to the back which says it is a woodblock by a certain artist. STAY AWAY FROM THESE SELLERS or only pay very small amounts for the item and expect to be disappointed as you will most likely receive a photographic copy.
ONLY BUY FROM SELLERS who describe the Actual Woodblock they are Selling FULLY explaining Where the Artists Signature and Censors Seals Appear on the Print, The Era the Signature was Used and the Dates of the Censors Seal or Seals. When the Woodblock is from a Series they Should Also Provide the Series, The Original Publisher and the date of Publication.
GENUINE ORIGINAL 19th Century Japanese Woodblock Prints CAN OFTEN BE FOUND on Ebay for Less than $100 and even on Retail Internet sites the prices range from $150 to $400, depending on the Artist and Condition of the woodblock so It is False Economy to BUY COPIES. The MAIN THING when looking at Japanese Woodblock prints is to RESEARCH the Artist, Know the Era of His Life and Understand that these woodblocks are between 100 and 180 years old and CAN NOT be in AS NEW condition or if by some very rare occurrence they have survived for so long with no-one ever looking at them they will be worth much more money.
Yoshiiku lived from 1833 to 1904. He was born the son of a Tea House Owner and became a Student of Kuniyoshi. He was a fellow student of Yoshitoshi and they were always competitors for the Master’s attention within the Kuniyoshi school. This rivalry continued throughout their lives. He was a Respected Woodblock Artist who Lived During a Difficult Period of Japanese History and Through his Skill and Talent Managed to Advance his Career and Reputation by his Immense Skill.
A Fine 1870's Woodblock by Yoshiiku, a Student of Kuniyoshi, Signed Ikkeisai Yoshiku Hitsu on the Left Side.
Toyohara Kunichika Lived From 1835 until 1900 and Unlike Many Artists of the Time He Worked Exactly to His Own Tastes and During His Rather Eccentric Life Produced a Spectacular Array of Unique and Original Work Based Mainly on Kabuki Theatre.
A Kunichika Print showing his Hitsu Signature with Red Toshidama Seal, 1870s.
Ogata Gekko lived from 1859 to 1920. He was born an orphan and gained his name when adopted by the renowned artist family of Ogata and given the name Gekko, meaning moonlight, by them. He was a self taught artist and created a truly individual style in his images. He is one of the most highly collectable of the Meiji era artists.
An interesting perspective in this Original Gekko woodblock.
Miyagawa Shuntei lived from 1873 to 1914 and produced his finest work at the end of the 19th Century. Original Name was Watanabe Morikichi. He Studied under Watanabe Shoka and Later Tomioka Eisen and Much of his Work Dealt with the Customs of Women and Children at Play. Miyagawa Shuntei, produced his finest work at the end of the nineteenth century. His two greatest series of woodcuts, Pictures of Customs and Flowers of the World of Pleasure, were both published in Tokyo in 1897. Shuntei's finest art was in the genre of bijin-ga; portrayals of beautiful women. In this regard, he is often regarded by scholars as a precursor to the woodcuts of the following generation of famous Shin Hanga artists.
Detail of an Original Shuntei woodblock.
Hashimoto Chikanobu lived from 1838 until 1912. He was a student of both Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada then Later in his Career he Studied under Toyohara Kunichika. His Signatures included a number of “Go” names including Ikkakusai and Yoshu and he created a number of different series in a wide variety of genres both singly and in series. His most famous are those of Beautiful Women and Meiji Era Traditions, Architecture and Lifestyle.
Morikawa Chikashige was a Pupil of Kunichika and Produced most of his Work Between 1869 and the mid 1880’s. As can be seen in his Woodblocks he Emulated the Style of his Master but was Able to Include a Touch of his Uniquely Individual Style, Especially in the Facial Expressions of his Subjects which were mostly kabuki Actors.
A Finely Detailed original Chikashige triptych.
THERE ARE MANY MORE ARTISTS AND THERE IS MUCH TO LEARN AND ENJOY ONCE YOU START TO COLLECT ORIGINAL ANTIQUE JAPANESE WOODBLOCK PRINTS.