Vegder's Blog

January 15, 2012

Sheer Pleasure – Transparency in Japanese Woodblock Prints

There is a genius to many Japanese woodblock prints, an underlying genius, which almost defies description. In the best of them one can only marvel at their production. Among these there is a small percentage which make a stab at showing transparency as it is in real life. The successful end product is due to  the consummate marriage of art and craft, artist and carver – and don’t forget the role played by the publisher. No matter who came up with the initial idea it took a remarkable team effort to create the final product.

Supposedly Michaelangelo (ミケランジェロ) said he did not create his sculptures, but rather freed them from the stone. While we know that is a beautiful idea we also know that when it comes right down to it it isn’t true. Michaelangelo’s genius was more than just picking the right slab of marble. The same principal is true of the works of Utamaro and Kuniyoshi and the brilliant carver’s they worked with. The development of a sense of  ‘transparency’ started slowly in the printing world as early as the 1770s – maybe earlier, but by the turn of the 18th century many of the principles had been mastered. As I fill out this post I will try to show you how this came about, but mostly I will just show you examples and let you draw your own conclusions. (Below is an example of one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. It represents a slave emerging from the Carrara marble and was posted at Flickr by William Cromar.)

To begin with I want to show you one of the most brilliant Japanese prints of all time. It is by Hokushū (北洲), an Osaka artist, and represents the actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Ichikawa Goemon disguised as the farmer Gosaku. Dating from 1830 it shows Utaemon on stage standing before a gauze-like screen behind which are a group of warriors who are pursuing him. The screen itself is meant to represent smoke, but I will get back to that later. The block carver is said to have been a man named Kasuke – someone I know absolutely nothing about – but someone who Arendie and Henk Herwig say raised the bar for meticulous carving “…and set new standards for the Osaka actor print genre…” But first the print, the brilliant, brilliant print.

  This example is owned by a great friend of mine. He will never know how grateful I am that he has let me use it.

Remember the smoke? A quick glance at this print and you can easily pick out the whirling smoke motif. Below is a detail showing the area behind the screen just to the right of the actor (as you are viewing him).

But it isn’t the smoke. It is the hidden figures that count here. Most people would glance and this print, see the actor on stage and notice a backdrop and leave it at that,  but that is where the true brilliance of this print exists. That is why I have isolated a couple of the figures with yellow outlines so you can begin to see what I am talking about. There are more than just these three.

   Find me a more remarkable print than this Hokushu and I will retract (some of) my words.

So when did it all begin? I haven’t a clue, but what I do know is that by the time of Harunobu (春信) serious attempts were being made at the representation of transparency – mainly in water. Below is an example from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston accompanied by two details. The museum dates this print to ca. 1767-68. It not only shows two young women standing in a stream with their feet showing, but also there is a net motif – something which will reappear in this post several times – and even an attempt at a display of looking at captured fish through a glass container. Only the feet part makes any real attempt at transparency while the other elements only hint at it.

Keep in mind: No color in this Harunobu print is anywhere near what it looked like originally. Only the blacks have maintained their true integrity, but even these must have faded to some degree. Most of the inks were made from organic dyes which were incredibly color fugitive. The stream must have been a delicate blue, or even not so delicate, but one that was definitely not color fast. Perhaps it was made from the dayflower. Looking fine when it was fresh, but just give it a few years and you will be asking yourself “What blue? I don’t see any blue.” But trust me, it was there.

What is it like when you have the blues? I am not talking about sadness here. I am talking about the later blue dyes which do a much finer job of holding their color. By the time Kuniyoshi (国芳) had come into his own publishers had started making much better use of blues which did not fade so easily. Below are two examples from the collection of the British Museum. The first from ca. 1842 is an image of the strong-woman Ōiko (大井児) moving a boulder so that the rice fields can be irrigated. Notice her feet. They are blue! Next to that print may be an even better example (for our purposes) dating from 1830-32 by Kuniyoshi. It shows one of the Water Margin heroes, Hayakawa Ayunosuke (早川鮎之助) trapping fish. Notice that in this case it is not just his feet, but his hands too which appear under the water.

Both examples: © Trustees of the British Museum

By way of contrast, if you are cutting corners… The next example, also from the British Museum and also by Kuniyoshi from 1852 shows Ōiko in the same act of moving the rock but this time her feet are no longer visible. It’s a bit easier to print them that way. Not as many steps.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Another interesting contrast: two works of art; two different media; two different approaches – same theme – There are two pieces in the British Museum which make for a wonderful opportunity for the art historian, aesthetictian and/or dilettante to compare and contrast – and this is one of those innumerable times which make the study of art so enjoyable and, dare I say it, fun. The first is a print by Harunobu showing woman and boy wading in the shallows of the Tama River. The woman has been fulling cloth and is seen washing a length of it. Remember that originally the color of the water was probably a beautiful blue with the feet of the woman and child visible as is the part of the cloth which is immersed. My guess: this print dates from ca. 1770 or so. Compare that with a painting by Kubo Shunman (窪俊満: 1757-1820) with the same general theme but dating from ca. 1783-7. Here there is no child, but that is not what counts here. What matters is Shunman’s decisions on how to present the cloth which disappears below the surface of the water. The cloth disappears completely – but we know it is there. Of course, part of this may be due to the materials being used. The white of the painting is absolutely, definitely and most assuredly opaque. That kind of opacity might have dictated to some degree, if not totally, to how the final product would look. Medium often dictates technique.

Both images, woodblock print and painting, are beautiful. Both deserve our admiration because of the amazing abilities of their creators.

Both images: © Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes I will post an image just because it is sooooo beautiful (charming, mysterious or whatever) – That is the case with this surimono print by Kuniyoshi on loan to the British Museum. There is just something about it which makes my heart beat a little stronger. Perhaps you will agree.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Now it is time for total immersion – There are two more prints you should see before we leave the leave water (as a liquid) behind us. One is by Utamaro and dates from 1788, which seems damned early for how incredible it is, and the other is by Kuniyoshi from 1834-35. Both deal with struggles between humans and kappa or water-monsters. I’ll show you the Kuniyoshi first in which Toranosuke is in a life/death battle.

   This is on loan from Prof. Arthur Miller. © Trustees of the British Museum
Notice how the entire print, with the exception of our hero’s face and the identifying cartouches, appears to be washed over with various shades of blue – even if that is not how they did it in the workshop.

A few words before I show you the Utamaro print: Normally I don’t like to show shunga prints, i.e., Japanese erotica. This is not because I am a prude – I am not – but because I am uncomfortable with the people who seem overly obsessed by this genre. You know who you are. However, as an art form – if you can get past the shock value – an erotic print can be just as beautifully designed as a non-erotic one. In my opinion that is the reason this image is being shown here. It shows a female abalone diver under the water being assaulted by two aroused male kappa. [I seem to remember somewhere that all kappa are males, but can’t say so for sure.] Nearby on the rock another diver watches both “…in horror and fascination” as Timothy Clark says.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Note: I chose not to give a close-up detail of the action in this print because it is even more lascivious, explicit, disturbing and disgusting than visible here. The kappa tongues alone tell the tale. However, for the sake of disclosure, if you are among the curious, the British Museum shows an enlarged detail of the lower left of this print.

Boy is she steamed! – One of the great 20th century prints is of a kneeling nude by Ito Shinsui (伊東深水: 1898-1972). It shows a woman at her bath enveloped in steam. Anyone familiar with the production of Japanese woodblock prints knows about the use of the baren, a tool used for rubbing the color onto the sheet by applying pressure from the back of the sheet. (The sheet is placed face down onto an inked block.) It is the masterful use of this instrument that gives us a sense that steam is swirling everywhere. This print first appeared in 1922.

In 1933 Watanabe published two prints by Kasamatsu Shiro  and Kawase Hasui using a similar technique and effect. Both show the interiors of a spas at the hot springs: the Shiro at Nozawa and the Hasui at Hoshi.

© Trustees of the British Museum – only for the print shown directly above. The one to the right is the Hasui, but is not from their collection.

When it comes to clothing that is the point –  A personal note: When I was 16 years old I found myself forced to accompany my parents and an older cousin to a nightclub to see Tony Bennett. No 16 year old wants to hear Tony Bennett. These were the early days of Haight Ashbury and we were in San Francisco, but this was no vacation. As we were standing in line a smartly dressed man walked by with a beautiful woman on his arm. As I recall she was about a head taller than he was and she was gorgeous. It wasn’t as though she could have gone unnoticed. However, in spite of her natural beauty she was also dressed provocatively. At least that is how most Midwesterners would have felt at that time. She was curvaceous, stacked and… wearing a see-through top which left nothing to the imagination. I saw her first and said nothing. When my father finally noticed her he said in a loud, and I do mean loud, voice: Will you take a look at those! Of course, he meant her breasts. If that wasn’t bad enough he just kept on talking about them. Can you picture my embarrassment? I can. Maybe you would have had to have been there, but I don’t see why. A thousand – or in this case far fewer – words are worth one very explicit picture.

I hadn’t thought of that moment for years, but doing this research brought it all back. Especially considering the images produced by Utamaro and some of his publishers. Let’s start off with a rather tame but wonderful example of a print of what appears to be a mother and child from the collection at the Met. At first glance it might not appear pertinent to this post, but a little closer examination highlighted by a partial detail of the woman’s covered lower face and the reason becomes eminently clear. The lines of her face and the pink of her lips are there for the whole world to see.

According to the curatorial notes this print dates from ca. 1804. It was published by Yamaguchiya Chūsuke. Unfortunately, as with most other prints shown here, we do not know who the master carver was.

If ever there was a word that sounded onomatopoetic that wasn’t – I don’t know about you, but the word diaphanous sounds like  itself to me. However, that probably wasn’t the case when it was first coined in ancient Greece by combining the words for ‘show’ and ‘though’ to mean ‘transparent’. The air can be diaphanous as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when he described “…the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric.” Or, as when Balzac was describing intricately delicate jewelry as if it “…had been fashioned by the fairies, who the stories tell us, are condemned by a jealous Carabosse [an evil fairy, a fée malfaisante], to collect the eyes of ants, or weave a fabric so diaphanous that a nutshell can contain it.”

What I marvel at is that such fabrics could be made in the first place and that then Japanese woodblock print carvers could translate those fabrics into something so incredibly visual that we can mistake for even one moment what we are seeing. Utamaro was a genius at his art and some of his collaborators were beyond human in their abilities. Perhaps they were Japanese fairies. What do you think? Below are two more prints from what must be regarded as a bit of a golden age for this art. The first dating from ca. 1797 and published by Moriya Jihei (森屋治兵衛) is from the collection in Boston and needs no explanation.

The second example was published by Wakasaya Yoichi (若狹屋与市) a few years ealier in ca. 1794-5 and comes from the collection of the New York Public Library. While it may be a bit more subtle, it isn’t by much.

  Courtesy of The New York Public Library –

Koreans really knew how to top things off – There is a wonderful print by Utamaro at the Met showing three women from the main red-light district of Edo dressed up for a Niwaka Festival. The one in the center is wearing a sheer Korean horsehair hat. Beautifully decorated you can see the woman’s hair and the ornamental hairpins she is wearing. This print is now said to date from 1793.


Lucky me – What’s great is that I own a traditional Korean horsehair hat. I wasn’t able to find out much about this article in general, but I did read that it was worn by upper class men and maybe even heads of their extended families. Can’t confirm this, but that isn’t what matters here. Below is a photo of my hat. That is followed by a Paul Jacoulet (1902-1960) print from the collection of the Pacific Asian Museum. It is entitled M. Keen et M. Lee. Seoul, Coree and dates from 1951. – In this particular image the artist doesn’t try to imitate the sheerness of these hats, but elsewhere he does capture that quality. However, I chose this print so you would get a better sense of how it looked on its owner.

There is a fellow in Brooklyn, Stephen Szczepanek, who has a clear love of traditional Asian textiles. He operates a business called Sri Threads – most assuredly worth a visit. When I decided to add this post on sheerness I wrote to him to ask if he had any fabrics which I might use. I told him about an exhibition of Korean costumes I had seen years ago at the now defunct IBM gallery. That show blew me away. Almost everything displayed was jaw-dropping-amazing and left me a richer person for having gone there. Stephen understood what I was getting at and sent me some images of Korean pojagi of which I have chosen one to post below. While it looks like it was thrown together haphazardly it actually is a remarkably studied piece constructed with care and elegance. It will give you some sense of what I experienced that day I happened to visti the IBM building so many years ago. A look through Stephen’s windows, through this beautiful pojagi, will give you a view of his very own urban landscape – made far more charming than what it must seem just looking through ordinary panes of glass. It even adds a touch of the mysterious – don’t you think?

  Note: While I realize that this fabric is not Japanese, I think it makes the point of this post perfectly.

“Here and there were rising vapors, white, diaphanous” Balzac – Higher up this page I gave a quote from Conrad on the diaphanous nature of the mist. Henry Ryder Haggard said “…Sheba’s breasts were modestly veiled in diaphonous wreaths of mists.” Conan Doyle spoke of a “…diaphanous vapour drifting swiftly from the westwards.” I am mentioning these quotes because it is one thing to describe them verbally and another to convey them visually – especially when it comes to the art of printing woodblocks. That is why it wasn’t until a full-blown genre of landscape prints had developed in Japan by the 1830s that artists and their colleagues began to take the subject of atmospherics seriously. Hiroshige attempted it and so did Kuniyoshi. In fact, one of the most unusual and greatest images ever created was by Kuniyoshi. It shows the area of Ochanomizu in Edo in a mist filled rain. While it doesn’t give the true quality of sheerness it does give a sense of it. Not only that, but this print is almost unique, sui generis, among the millions of Japanese prints produced. I love it.

In 1903 Wallace Stevens, perhaps my favorite American poet, went camping in British Columbia. He wrote that in one day he hiked about 25 miles and that “The distant mountains there slip off into a thousand diaphanous shades of ether.” He might as well have been thinking about these prints – had he known them. Me? I can’t help thinking about “…purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.”

From the same period is a print of the same general area but this time it is by Kunisada, one of Kuniyoshi’s competitors. Yet this time Ochanomizu is displayed in a mist and not in the rain. We are fortunate that the Met owns copies of both prints by these enormously talented artists.

Let it rain – There are tons of Japanese prints showing rain. Often is it just a bunch of black slanted (or vertical) lines printed over the areas meant to be getting wet. However, on occasions there are some prints which endeavor to capture something a little more… expressive. One such example from ca. 1830 is by Toyokuni II, a highly underrated artist in my opinion.

Seen through the slats of the sudare (簀垂れ) -In the Art Institute of Chicago there is an Utamaro print, the left-hand panel of a triptych, which shows elegant woman who have gathered to wash and stretch silk cloth. In this panel one is seated on a veranda holding a long pipe while one is standing. The seated one is clearly visible through the sudare which only shields the upper part of her body. Behind both women is part of the stretched silk cloth. The publisher was Yamadaya Sanshirō and Asano and Clark date this print from ca. 1796-7. This is important because it helps to give us a gauge of how early this style of transparency was developed. Clark also notes that this was Utamaro’s updated version of a similar scene by Kiyonaga. Now this will send me off on a search for similar techniques in his work. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

Obviously Utamaro had a great team of publishers, carvers and printers to work with.  All of these men were able to translate the artist’s/publisher’s visions into some of the most remarkable Japanese prints ever produced. Below is another fine example from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from ca. 1794-5. Even a partial translation of the series title  adds to the romantic flavor of this print: Women Woven in the Mist.

Another example from this Woven/Mist series is in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute, but here it shows one of the figures behind a mosquito nest, kaya. I can’t even imagine the excitement these prints must have produced among the more sophisticated collectors. A comparison of the two shown here bring home the level of technical expertise achieved in this print form over 200 years ago.

   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

One of the great contributors to this site is Eikei (英渓), an intellectual, scholar and collector, who was kind enough to send me this image of a Chikanobu (周延: 1838-1912) print from his own collection. I have isolated the most pertinent part here. Notice the cat outside on the veranda and the blossoming cherry tree near the stream and rocks.

  The Eikei collection

There is a surimono designed by Hokusai in the Rijksmuseum. It is from a larger series all based on sea shells. This one represents the ‘bamboo blind shell’ or sudaregai, aka Paphia euglypta Philippi. As you can see from the image below it shows three women either making or repairing bamboo blinds. The detail below that shows the central figure and gives the semblance of transparency.

  © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

   detail © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Below, and just for good measure, is an image of a sudaregai (簾貝) which I found at a Japanese geocities site. Notice how the darker spots are mimicked by the dark weights being used by the woman in the lower right of the Hokusai print. There were no copyright restrictions listed so I have copied it to show it to you here. If for any reason this needs to be removed please contact me.

Now it is down to the wire – There is another Hokusai surimono from the shell series, Minasegei, the waterless shell, in which he drew a wire frame to hold frogs. The tradition of showing figures displayed behind ‘chicken wire’ goes back to the 18th century and Kiyonaga, I believe, whether it be animals or temple guardians. However, such images are relatively rare and difficult to find. Below is the frog cage print also from the collection of the Rijksmuseum. It is accompanied by a detail of the cage itself.

(Both the print and detail) © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

There is a wonderful description of this print written by Matthi Forrer and Roger Keyes in a publication called “A Sheaf of Japanese Papers…”. It shows the complexity of dissecting the various/numerous elements in what to us would seem a simple and straighforward presentation. I am quoting from the first part of it:

Three books, one of them open, beside a cage with frogs on two miniature rocks. To the left a folding
screen with a painting of the poet Shunzei fording the Ide Tama river in Yamashiro province, near
Kyōto, followed by three servants.

The Ide no Tamagawa was famous for its yellow yamabuki flowers, mentioned in Shunzei’s verse, and
for its frogs. The river was also called the Minasegawa or Dry river, hence the dry cage with rocks and
frogs. On teh borders of the Minasegawa was a celebrated gatheringt of the three poets Sōgi, Sōchō and
Shōhaku, who composed a famous collection of one hundred linked verses called Minasegawa Sangin.
This work is suggested by the three works of verse at the left. In addition, there was a Minase shrine,
dedicated to the emperor Go Toba, who was so sensitive to noises that he quieted the frogs of the
Shikekuro pond at Amamura.

Later the authors noted that “The proper name of the shell is minashigai.”

The insubstantiality of ghosts – Ghosts are a curious subject of Japanese prints in more ways than one. Early on images of actors as ghosts depended mainly on the use of makeup and costuming and that is basically how they were presented graphically. However, when printers/artists/carvers figured out how to display them as otherworldly a whole new sub-genre – albeit a small one – was born. Of course, the same principles could be applied to ghouls and ogres and such. Below is “The Ghost of Koheiji” (こはだ小平ニ) by Hokusai from ca. 1831. While this image is remarkably impactful whoever the ghost is staring down upon need not worry if an old belief is true – ghosts cannot enter the areas protected by mosquito netting. Such spectres might be able to scare the ess out of you and even peer in, but they can’t get you. Trust me.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Another fine example of a ghostly appearance shows up in another print by Kuniyoshi published by Ibaya Senzaburo (伊場屋仙三郎). It represents the story of the devout Buddhist woman who was traveling to see her husband when she was set upon by a bandit who killed her. This would be bad enough except that she was very, very pregnant at the time. The bodhisattva Kannon took pity on her and had a nearby rock cry out for help. A monk heard the cries and saw the dead woman. He pulled the baby out of he womb and fed it candy. After that the stone was said to weep nightly – that is, until it was removed in 1877. It is probably stored in the same warehouse that holds the Ark of the Covenant from the raiders movie of Indiana Jones fame. Notice the monk holding the baby to his chest while looking at the ghost-mother.

But before you go straight to the print let me point out one thing: Look carefully at the tree seen behind/through the ghost. The ghost is not really transparent. It is printed in such a way as to give that illusion, but it is only an illusion. The ghost is prints like every other area of this image. At least that is what I think and just thought you should know.

More insubstantiality: The fox mother Kuzunoha – Foxes, as we all know, especially Japanese foxes have supernatural powers. One in particular took pity on a human male who had faced horrendous losses. So, Kuzunoha, our fox in question, turned herself into a beautiful woman, married the man, bore him a son and then when the jig was up reverted to form and left the domestic scene. Below is that moment when the child and husband see Kuzunoha exit stage left – or is it right? I never know which is which. Below is a Kuniyoshi print from the collection in Boston. (This section and images were added on February 28, 2012.)

A number of years ago a great contributor, E., to my commercial web site sent me a wonderful image showing Kuzunoha looking adoringly down at her sleeping child. Notice the screen. Below that image I have placed a print by Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi’s pupil, giving his own visual interpretation. The similarities are obvious. [So why did I say that? Because that is what I do.]


Were you thinking of a nice getaway at sea? Well, forget it. Ghosts and monsters are everywhere. Below is another Kuniyoshi print published by Kojima Jubei. However, unlike the ghost mother seen above this print does look like the looming monster is printed over the top of the top of the waves. No fakery here. This is the real thing.

© Trustees of the British Museum

It takes guts! – It takes blood and guts to produce a deluxe printing with the most expensive inks and techniques and then at the end to splatter the bottom of the print with red ink the color of blood.  One mistake and this print would have had to have been thrown onto the trash heap. As it is, despite its gruesome nature, it is a masterpiece. The detail shown below the full image makes clear the masterful use of the red ink. In places it is splattered, but in the large pooled area it rides above the painting on the screen which is still visible.

   This, too, is owned by a great and generous friend.

My mistake: I originally described the figure of Oiwa as a ghost. However, despite her gruesome appearance she hasn’t made it that far yet. She is still very much – well not ‘very much’ – alive. Sara E. Thompson in her new book on Kuniyoshi’s 69 stations of the Kisokaidō gives a good summary of this scene. Oiwa is being poisoned by her husband who has fallen in love with another woman. Ailing Oiwa is visited by a blind masseur who is horribly shocked by merely feeling the distortions on her face. He suggests that she look at herself in a mirror. When she does she is distraught. Thompson says: “When she attempts to comb her hair, it falls out in bloody clumps, dripping onto the white paper of an overturned screen (tsuitate).”

Smokin’ hot – There is a wonderful Utamaro diptych published by Uemura Yohei (上村与兵衛) in ca. 1794-95 showing four women doing kitchen duties. One is paring an eggplant, one is blowing on a fire and one – the one who concerns us here – is trying to scoop water for a tea cup. She is reacting to a column of smoke which is affecting only her. But before I show you the image I want to quote one passage from the Utamaro catalogue written by Timothy Clark: “Several elaborate printing techniques are employed, such as brass powder on the stove, pink mica on the rim of the ash-box under it, and gauffrage to suggest the rivets on this rim. [¶] As Suzuki Jūzō has pointed out, this print had a considerable influence on works by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) in the later Edo period.” Two points: 1) Clark doesn’t single out the printing of the irritating smoke for special comment, but that’s okay and 2) he does mention the effect on Kuniyoshi which is important since the next print after the Utamaro diptych will be one of Kuniyoshi smoke images.

©The Art Institute of Chicago -Fortunately this image is large enough for you to see clearly the smoke printed over part of the woman’s clothing, the tea cup, her hand and much of her face.

Below is a Kuniyoshi print from ca. 1848 and published by Sumiyoshiya Masugoro. It represent Takeda Nobushige in a cloud of smoke. The detail image next to it may should help you see the overlaid printing of the smoke a little better.

© Trustees of the British Museum

There is another Kuniyoshi print from ca. 1840 in the Allen Museum at Oberlin College showing Gomō (呉猛) adding an extra smoking brazier to keep the mosquitoes away from his father. It is one of the examples from one of the series of 24 Paragons of Filial Piety.

Ainsworth Bequest, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Smoke and perhaps a case of the vapors – There is an ancient myth in Japan about the humble fisherman Urashima Tarō (浦島太郎) who saves the life of a threatened tortoise. In return the tortoise takes him to the home of the Dragon King which lies in the depths of the sea. While there Tarō receives a gift of a box from the Dragon King’s daughter, but he has to promise never to open it. He agrees. Homesick he returns to his village, but recognizes no one and nothing seems familiar. In desperation, knowing that the box contains something precious, he breaks his promise in the hope that the contents will save him from his suffering. Remember, he had been warned and had given his word.

As soon as box is opened smoke envelops his body and as it lifts he finds that he has aged 300 years. What seemed like such a short visit to the underseas palace was really a huge expanse of time. Only by opening the box is the truth revealed. Below are two prints. The first is by Kuniyoshi and shows the tortoise giving Tarō a vision of the palace by merely exhaling his miraculous breath. While technically this is not an image of transparency it gives us the sense of such a thing.

In the second example transparency does play a role. This detail from a Yoshiiku print from the Eikei collection clearly shows the smoke rising from the just opened box most of which is out of view to the left. One of the great things about this print is that where the smoke has already covered Urashima Tarō one can detect that he has already aged tremendously. That is why we are following the Yoshiiku detail with and even more isolated one which clearly shows the lines in his face and the whitening of his hair.

The Eikei collection

While combing through the material look what I found – Long before there were translucent plastics Japanese craftsmen learned the secrets of using tortoiseshells for expensive domestic purposes. High class courtesans were particularly drawn to wearing such items as a symbol of their success and status. And since these women were often the models used for popular print artists – beautiful women always sell – it wasn’t long before the transparency of these objects was expressed through the print medium. Below is an example of an Utamaro print from the Art Institute in Chicago showing a woman holding a comb up in front of the lower part of  face.

   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

In another Utamaro, The Glass Goblet, in the MFA in Boston, we get a triple whammy effect: a not-terribly-successful use of glass, skillful carving of the swept hair pattern which you can see through and beautiful tortoiseshell comb which helps to hold the top of her hairdo in place. This one, like the example shown above, is thought to date from ca. 1795-6.

Just short of sheerness – Shoji or paper screens allow the transmission of light, but stop short of the clarity of glass. For that reason traditionally when an interior is lit while it is dark outside figures often are shown as  silhouetted forms. This made it easy for artists to portray an action or profile in general while leaving out all of the specific details which commonly fill our visual field. There are far too many examples to show here, but I have chosen two which should help make the point. The first by Utamaro and dating from the 1790s shows an elegant beauty sitting on the veranda of a teahouse. Women within are clearly visible in profile. A particularly nice touch is the part of the print showing the shoji door opened slightly.

   Ainsworth Bequest, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

The next example is, for me, one of the most remarkable prints every produced by a Japanese woodblock print artist. This is one of those rare examples when an artist trained in traditional methods thinks outside the box. In 1877 Kunichika (国周: 1835-1900) created the Cat and Lantern (猫と提灯) – a shocker of an image when it comes to presentation and techniques. It shows an overturned lantern with the candle still burning. A belled cat has trapped a rat which tried to flee through the lantern but is being held down by its tail. Part of the rat’s snout can be seen in the area where it has gnawed through the paper covering. But that isn’t what is most remarkable about this image. What is most astounding – and yet so subtly presented – is the impression of the desperate standing rat pressing its front paws against the unbroken paper of the lantern.

A particularly nice touch of the print being shown here is the use of darker inks to show the pressure of he straining paws of the rat. The original publisher was Sekō and the carver was Inoue Eikici. None of the first edition, which number no more than 5 examples, was for sale. Two reasons: 1) a ton of experimental methods were being used and 2) this print is double the normal size of most woodblock prints. There are a number of other later editions produced well into the first decades of the 20th century. These included other publishers and sometimes new blocks.

The development of transparency was not confined to the Japanese or even to print forms – In Europe in the 14th century Giotto (ジョット) made the great leap from Byzantine representations, where all of the figures were flat – two dimensional – to figures which seemed to exist in three dimensions in real space and to have genuine weight to them. Vasari said that Giotto “opened the gates of truth” to all later artists.  Contemporary with Giotto was Duccio (ドゥッチオ) who stuck closer to the old order. While his paintings were remarkably decorative in nature, lusciously so, his settings, like those of Giotto, remained unreal. Neither artist knew how to gives his viewers a full sense of reality. (See the Duccio below which I found at commons.wikimedia.)

It took centuries of experimentation and advances in technology before landscapes and interiors looked like the real McCoy. In fact, it took even longer, long after issues of perspective and recession had been resolved, for an artist to figure out how to paint the illusion where one could almost feel the morning chill or even seen the mist created by the level of humidity in the air. This was Claude Lorrain (クロード・ロラン: ca. 1600 to 1682), a man of such consummate skill that he changed our perceptions forever. Claude was the first artist to give us the sense of the air we breathe, to show us its transparency. Compare his work with that of the Duccio and you will see we never looked back – that is, until the advent of Modern Art. (The Claude shown below was posted at Flickr by jampa.)

The title is “Port de mer au soleil couchant” (港の夕日). It dates from 1639 and hangs in the Louvre.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. Interesting blog post! I’m sure you’ll find many more examples. I’m reminded of an Utamaro print auctioned off last year at Christie’s ( showing a woman folding a piece of cloth being played with by a cat. This print is not only extremely rare, but it also shows the different shades of purple in astounding condition.

    Comment by Kenneth Muehleisen (@kenmuehleisen) — January 24, 2012 @ 10:56 am | Reply

    • Dear Ken, Thanks for bringing the Utamaro to my attention. It is indeed incredible and a pleasure to see. I found another example at the Met, but it pales by comparison. Glad you like this post. I looked at your Twitter site and like what you are doing, too. Sincerely, Jerry V.

      Comment by vegder — January 27, 2012 @ 11:00 pm | Reply

  2. Very interesting blog post. Certainly learned more about Japanese visual culture in the past.

    Comment by Julian Peña — January 21, 2013 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: