According to those mysterious creatures that I like to term other people, hardly anything is.
I’m often (quite accurately) accused of posing everything in extremes and refusing to see the grey areas on any given topic, particularly when it comes to other people’s behaviour, and specifically when it comes into conflict with what I have decided are my interests. This charming foible of mine is partly attributable to the fact that I am stubborn and self-absorbed, but also because I can’t help but think that anything other than a firm answer is just lazy. I am impatient. Hurry up and think about it properly and come back to me with the answer that I want to hear please. Thx.
I chose to write my seminar paper this semester on Jakuchu’s woodblock printed books, Genpo yōka 玄圃瑤華 (1868), which to my great relief, is executed entirely in black and white. Image. Background. Ne’er the twain shall meet. You’d think that would make things simple. Produced by the so-called takuhanga technique in simulation of Chinese transfer rubbings made from stone steles, this ehon (picture book) is composed of forty-eight designs of plants and insects – all executed in reverse image, rendering the background in black and the design elements left as negative white space, some accompanied by inscriptions in cursive script of Chinese characters.
Jakuchū was a member of an artistic and social community and some of its constituent groups that met on a regular basis in and around Kyoto to exchange ideas and objects of interest, and to produce collaborative works. These groups admired, and in part aimed to recreate, the cultural conditions of the Chinese intelligentsia. However, there was no social class of men of letters in Japan, no national examination system, and no comparable sense of common endeavor for an educated elite. Artists in Japan who aspired to Chinese cultural ideals were therefore not equipped with the same set of social coordinates as their imagined Chinese counterparts, and Japanese painters were often oblique to many of the presuppositions about Chinese men of letters. For instance, as a member of the merchant class by birth, according to the neo-Confucian Tokugawa government’s four-level status hierarchy of warrior, peasant, artisan and merchant, Jakuchū’s inherited position was officially despised. However, in addition to the official vertical system of status, artistic and intellectual communities were able to establish horizontal networks that made it possible to transcend the official system in productive, if limited, ways.
Believe it or not, but these prints fit into this social landscape. Jakuchū was acquainted with several prominent figures in the Kyoto artistic scene and was a member of several groups centered around the influential figures of Daiten, Baisaō Kō Yūgai (1675 – 1763) and Kimura Kenkadō (1736 – 1802). As with these figures, Jakuchū’s identity was both group and self-fashioned according to various prototypical models of the ‘gentleman scholar’ in what was considered a very common, axiomatic way of being a cultured individual, according to various typologies developed by the 8th century in China. Genpo yōka, like other of Jakuchū’s works, was created within this social field of practice in which artistic production took place in a discursive space amongst like-minded individuals, and in which participation came to represent a whole lifestyle that was imbued with poetic sentiments and gentlemanly ideals. Members would gather together in these groups, sometimes in Chinese dress in the manner of Baisaō, to enjoy steeped tea and savor Chinese verse, art treasures and the Confucian classics — in short, to become erudite and cultivated, and to share a common interest in the culture of China, though one which was very much internalized, lacking as they did the actual means to travel there.
So what makes these prints “Chinese”? The technique used to produce the prints in Genpo yōka is a variation of a practice that originates in China known as takuhon in Japanese. With its origins in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), it was primarily used for reproducing by transfer the inscriptions incised on monumental objects, such as bronzes or steles, and became a widely used printing method in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1844). These works of reproduction (see left) served as important objects of commemoration and transmission for the original monumental work, that nevertheless recorded a particular moment in that object’s life in full recognition and appreciation of the stone’s current state of erosion. There is a sense of directness and immediacy in this process as the practitioner must come into close physical proximity with the original object. These steles were destination sites for scholastic pilgrimage, and since a rubbed impression was by necessity created by someone who had actually visited the stele, the print transmitted and commemorated the authority of the original object and this journey.
By the takuhon method, wet paper is pressed against the inscribed stone surface to allow the paper to partially sink into the recessed areas of pattern or text. Whilst the paper remains on the surface of the object, ink is applied to the paper by rubbing – with the result that the recessed portions remain blank. This produces an exact image of the original design when the paper is subsequently removed. Takuhon printing is fundamentally different in technique from conventional Japanese woodblock printing in which paper is laid on the surface of a previously inked block and rubbed from the back in order to produce the image. Ink is applied to the raised areas of the design, which correspond to the carved outlines of the original image; i.e. it is a relief printing process. Takuhon, by contrast, is an intaglio print process, where the design is carved into the wood. In both processes, the design would first be created by the artist with a brush as an ink drawing on paper which would then be applied to the woodblock prior to carving.
The resulting prints could then be collected together and used for copy books for calligraphy, forming collections of reproductions of calligraphic or pictorial models worthy of emulation by aspiring students. Although this technique initially involved rubbing from stone objects, Jakuchū’s takuhanga prints play on this conceit by their production from carved woodblocks by an analogous process. Whereas ‘ordinary’ copy books attempted to imitate ink painting through xylographic means, Jakuchū’s takuhanga works aim to imitate an impression from stone by designs created by brush and ink. The prints themselves are reminiscent of the textural surface of stone, as the mechanical process materializes the paper and makes us aware of it as a physical surface, giving it an almost sculptural appearance. The white lines that provide the areas of detail on many of the designs appear as though etched into a surface of black paper, in what could be interpreted as a (re)creation of the stele’s stone face.
But it isn’t just the images that allude to Chinese precedents – the inscriptions that accompany some of the designs in Genpo yōka are short statements that allude to Confucian aphorisms, or majestic-sounding titles for common specimens. For instance, the humble and commonplace maize plant is given the elevated title of ‘Ripening Jeweled Grains’, and though its companion is a beetle, it is the kabuto mushi (‘King of insects’). These inscriptions grant lofty associations to features of the ordinary environment, and reflect the way in which Jakuchū and his group conceptualized the natural world around them by re-envisioning the Japanese ecology according to Chinese scholastic values. Similarly, the four-character title, evocative of Chinese precedents, refers to a garden on one of the peaks of Mt Kunlun in China, which was the residence of Taoist immortals and reputedly filled with spectacular flowers and rocks. Although an actual place in the Central Asian Mountains, Mt Kunlun is more generally associated with the paradisiacal home of the legendary Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu. In this way the title refers to a common literary archetype of the home of Taoist immortals.
This is a funny title given the way that the plants are depicted, as what strikes the viewer is Jakuchū’s emphasis on decay – although this is a common visual motif in many of Jakuchū’s works, it is shown here to an extreme degree. Each of the plants is shown with numerous round holes as a product of insect predation, or other signs of loss and natural decomposition. We can attribute this tendency to several factors; one being the purely aesthetic consideration of the visual appeal of breaking up a simple monochromatic image. The decomposing nature of the foliage also helps to showcase the takuhanga technique, with the increased number of raised edges and indentations giving a pleasing visual effect.
Whatever Jakuchū’s original motivation for creating Genpo yōka, it did achieve a measure of success as a volume of artistic transmission. It was later anthologized and reproduced in woodblock printed books using the standard relief printing process. And in its most modern incarnation, it is the subject of a paper I am grooming for eventual publication. I will try my best to say something concrete on this issue one day, malcontent as always to hide behind ambivalence. Since no one has written on this work before in English, I have an enormous amount of freedom to say whatever I like. I find this more terrifying than liberating. I’m aiming to straddle that fine line between inane and outlandish. Watch this (negative white) space.