Woodblocks for Printing


Original Late Nineteenth Century Woodblock from a Print by Kunichika.

It’s very very hard to explain to people, and still harder for most people to imagine how the delicate, ephemeral, jewel-like images on Japanese woodblock prints can be made from great thick chunks of timber… or how the sharp hair’s breadth lines on the image of a delicate piece of cloth or the leaves on a distant tree can be made by carving with a hand tool. Because I suspect that even using a modern CNC machine it would be hard to best the great skills of some of the very best block carvers of nineteenth century Japan such as Hori Shoji. Compare the exquisite delicacy of the carving in the print below by Kuniyoshi, with the modern, computer driven efforts.

The great chunk of wood at the top of the page is an original wooden block that has been used to produce an edition of prints for the artist Kunichika. It’s the block for just the black, keyline that prints all the outlines around the colours. You can make out the figure of an actor in the role of an Edo era samuari, at the top of the block is a square cartouche that contains the image of another actor probably from the same performance or the same play. Below, on the detail of the block itself you can easily see where very large, scoop shaped chisels have hewn the delicate close grained cherry wood away. The strokes become subtler as they approach the outline and the features rise like islands seen from above beneath a choppy sea.

s-l1600-2 copy

Detail froma wood block made by Kunichika

The making of prints was  a complex business involving many different skilled people. Generally speaking, a publisher would approach an artist with an idea for a print or a series of prints. The artist would draw a same size design in black ink on thin, washi paper. The paper was then glued to a block of wood and the block carver would carve away around the outline until only the lines themselves remained proud. Slips of the hand were expensive and hard to repair. A print was made of the key block and sent back to the artist, who then painted in or wrote on it the different colours and effects that he envisaged. Up to maybe sixteen separate blocks were then made to correspond with each colour and texture, some carefully thought through in order to obtain blended, or shaded effects of incredible complexity. The blocks were then printed in each of the colours, in the correct order until finally, the original key block was printed, locking the colours together. Blocks like the one above are very rare because after the print was made the block was planed off so that it could be used again. Below is a print made with several colour blocks from just such a piece of wood,

KSA189 copy

Kunisada. Iwai Hanshiro from the series; Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present. 1855

It’s useful when looking at the extraordinary precision of a piece like this to remember that each colour, each pattern represents a separate chunk of wood, each line is carved from such crude beginnings to such a delicate conclusion. Twenty four of these masterpieces are at the Toshidama Gallery for five weeks from the 14th of September in the exhibition; Actor Portrait Series in Japanese Woodblock Prints.

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Alan Watts Blues – the Khakkhara

There are any number of unusual objects that appear in ukiyo prints. Perhaps commonplace in Japan, this post begins a short series of articles exploring the meaning and influence of these apparent oddities.


khakkhara staff with brass rings

When we first had the lovely Kunichika print illustrated below I was fascinated by the oddness of the scene… to western eyes like mine, the pattern of lanterns, the redness of the bold paper light, the strange wooden tower, that curious hat and most of all that peculiar metal pole with the metal rings suspended from it on the right hand sheet. I was unfamiliar with the object and failed for ages to track down its function. In fact it is an object called a khakkhara. A khakkhara is a ‘sounding staff’, it is a part of the regalia of a Buddhist pilgrim or monk, designed to be used as a warning to sentient beings – insects and such like – to move out of the way and avoid being crushed underfoot. As the carrier moves along paths and roads the six rings jingle against each other; this also acts as a signal that someone requiring alms is approaching!

Kunichika. The Story of Oshichi

Kunichika, The Story of Oshichi, 1860’s

In Japan (where it is called a shakujo) the khakkhara was also used as a weapon by Buddhist monks. The staff was formidable as a spear, with its sharp metal point and weighted end.

I was brooding on this whilst reading Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts. Watts was an original thinker, a philosopher, theologian and a leading Buddhist practitioner who was instrumental in bringing many eastern, mystical ideas to the west, and to California especially, during the 1950’s and 1960’s. British by birth, he moved to the United States in 1938, first as a member of the Episcopalian Church and after 1950 as a student of Zen philosophy.

Alan Watts and khakkhara

Alan Watts as a Buddhist Pilgrim

The photograph above shows Watts in California… holding just such a staff. The four rings on Watts’ staff identify him as a novice.  Watts was a brilliant thinker but a complicated and troubled person. His writing on Buddhism and Christianity is outstanding in its clarity and vision. During the 1960’s Watts spent a great deal of time at a secluded commune in Druid Heights, Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco. It was here that he put down roots, developing and building a library and workspace the remains of which are still visible today amid the dereliction of the now deserted community.

Photographs of the Druid Heights community have appeared more frequently on the web in recent times, and indeed there is a distinct campaign aimed at saving and restoring the site and scheduling it as important before the forest reclaims the now collapsing buildings.  The photographs show the homemade structures put together by its founder the carpenter and builder Roger Somers and furniture maker Ed Stiles. These structures show the keen influence of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and therefore, the distinctive footprint of traditional Japanese architecture. Below is a photograph showing the interior of a building known as the Ranch House, with very clear Japanese intentions in its design.

Ranch house Druid Heights

Ranch house Druid Heights

I strongly recommend anyone interested in the buildings at Druid Heights to visit Michael Toivonen’s web pages devoted to saving the site, which include this very moving shot of the remains of the interior of Watts’ library there.

Alan Watts Library Druid Heights

Alan Watts Library Druid Heights

The outstanding natural feature of the site is a large round rock formation which Watts christened ‘Cloud Hidden’. In Watts’ 1958 book, Nature, Man and Woman, he quotes the 9th century poet Chia Tao’s poem, Searching for the Hermit in Vain:

I asked the boy beneath pines

he said, “The Master’s gone alone

Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unkown.

Watts takes inspiration from Chia Tao both in naming the rock and indeed in the title of his final, semi autobiographical work, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unkown, a collection of essays and observations whose subtitle, A Mountain Journal is self-explanatory. All of which brings me round to another sensation, another art… music, because whilst thinking about the Kunichika, and reading Alan Watts I was also, by chance, listening to the greatest voice of sacred music of the twentieth century; Van Morrison. It was his song Alan Watts Blues that was playing on the stereo and the insistent chorus from the song of the same title: Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown – hence the title at the top of the page. It is a pleasing and thought provoking circularity… the words of Alan Watts, the sensations of Japanese Zen, the beauty of the woodblock prints, the thoughts of Druid Heights, the words of the Chinese poet of the 9th century and the music of Van Morrison… .

Kunisada. Akitsuki played by Onoe Kikujiro II

Kunisada. Akitsuki played by Onoe Kikujiro II


I shall end the piece with another image of the khakkhara (above). This time, the khakkhara is being held by the female pilgrim Akitsuki from a triptych by Kunisada from 1853.

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Toshidama Gallery Blog 2018


Kunisada – Parody of Scenes by Moonlight – 1855

It has been nearly a year since we published articles on this WordPress blog. Nevertheless the Toshidama Gallery has been busier than ever elsewhere with exhibitions, publications and real world activities. This is a gratifyingly popular blog, attracting several thousand visitors per month, even without consistent updates and so we have decided to relaunch the site with regular articles as before. Toshidama Gallery deals in Japanese woodblock prints from the nineteenth century, a period sometimes called the Floating World… (a phrase that described the isolated, hedonistic world of Japanese life before the modern era) or Edo Japan, in reference to the archaic name of present day Tokyo.

Our other blog, over at e-blogger, carries catalogues for each show that the Toshidama Gallery puts online – roughly ten per year. This WordPress blog has traditionally published articles related to Ukiyo-e (Japanese prints) but not necessarily about them, something we hope to continue to do and indeed, to broaden the scope even more. The first new article therefore looks at the odd ritual implement, the khakkhara and its appearance in a photograph of the great Buddhist and Christian scholar, the late Alan Watts. I sincerely hope that the blog continues to interest and entertain in the future.

Alex Faulkner.


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Osaka Mon Amour

Hirosada  Nakamura Utaemon IV as Matsuemon  in Act 6 of Seisuiki.

Hirosada. Nakamura Utaemon IV as Matsuemon in Act 6 of Seisuiki.

Toshidama Gallery is showing a selection of fabulous prints made by the Osaka woodblock artists of the mid-nineteenth century. The show runs from October 2017 for six weeks and all of the prints are for sale.

Yoshitaki. Snow Scene in Theatre. 1860’s.

Yoshitaki. Snow Scene in Theatre. 1860’s.

I think that for me as the gallery director, my favourite prints, (my love if you like!) is for the discreet and tragic beauty of this Osaka School of woodblock artists. Even amongst those great works, spanning several decades, I think it is the mid century, the so-called second wave who are most mysterious, most daring and most impressive. Starting I guess with Sadanobu and culminating in the exotic and decadent works of Yoshitaki, these wonderful jewel like prints suggest a prescience and tragedy… a melancholy that is both technically accomplished and restrained… moving and tragic. That these artists could work so freely within such tight constraints imposed by the government censors (post 1842 and most harshly administered in Osaka) and within the smaller chuban format is nothing short of miraculous.

Sadanobu I (1809 - 1879) Lives of Renowned Swordfighters

Sadanobu I (1809 – 1879) Lives of Renowned Swordfighters

The earliest prints in the show are on the larger oban format – the marvellous Ashiyuki portrait of Arashi Rikan II as Mashiba Hisatsugu, from 1830 and the Yoshikuni portrait of the kabuki superstar of the century Nakamura Utaemon III from 1821. For two decades at least nearly every print went either unsigned or unnamed and on the chuban size paper… to avoid censorship but one can’t help feeling that these small prints may have been passed around from one discreet sleeve to another in quiet corners of tea houses!

Yoshitaki (ca 1841 - 1899) An Actor as Yoshitsune? 1868.  Oban.

Yoshitaki (ca 1841 – 1899) An Actor as Yoshitsune? 1868. Oban.

We don’t see a return to the larger format until the end of Osaka print production with a few of the outstanding okubi-e and large portraits by Yoshitaki. My favourite print in the show, despite soome age damage is Yoshitaki’s masterful print of an actor as Yoshitsune, a print that is so confident, so deft, so brilliantly coloured as to be breathtaking.

Hirosada. Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon, 1850

Hirosada. Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon, 1850

Elsewhere, as the show opens we have five consecutive pages of chuban portraits, each one so similar but each one so engagingly and profoundly original. I wanted them to all be laid out together, as a group. This is woodblock printing at its very best, anytime, anywhere in the world. These prints bristle, sparkle and crackle with colour and texture, with line, shape and symbol and seethe with barely contained melancholy and writhing emotion… each one a minor miracle. Multiply these small miracles by three and we have some of the astonishing Osaka triptychs, like exquisite jewel boxes that are opened out on the page, each one a three act drama revealed as each sheet unfolds. Especially notable is the lake side scene of Nakamura Utaemon IV as Matsuemon in Act 6 of Seisuiki from 1851. The waves, the pine tree, the astonishing embossed drawing of the figures a virtuoso performance of the art of woodblock. Imagine what these prints must have felt like when they were fresh from a back street workshop, possibly illegal, certainly daring, as they were unwrapped from rice paper envelopes and their shiny burnished details caught the light of the oil lamps.

I hope I can communicate to you some of the enthusiasm I feel, personally towards these prints. They are absurdly cheap. The market is slowly catching up to the genius of Osaka but predictably the market must start with the oldest items first!

Hirosada Writing Manuel for the Loyal Retainers, 1851

Hirosada Writing Manuel for the Loyal Retainers, 1851

It is possible to purchase, to own and to display a work of art that is more usually seen behind glass in a museum, for just a few hundred dollars in many cases. The prints on the site are all original, first editions unless otherwise stated and usually of museum collection quality. Wherever  it is appropriate, we supply links to other copies in major collections.

For a copy of our newsletter and a discount on all prints in the show, please do click HERE

Posted in Hirosada, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Osaka Prints, Osaka School, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Yoshikuni, Yoshitaki | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tattoo You – The Continuing Debt To Ukiyo-e

The newspapers have been very full of risque images from the 13th International London Tattoo Convention . It’s a huge event, tattoos cover any number of different body types, body parts and genders and there seems no end to the diversity of imagery or culture. The common factor remains ukiyo-e… particularly the drawing of Hokusai and Kuniyoshi which imbues nearly every subject and genre.

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Tammeijiro

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Tammeijiro

Of course, regular readers will know that it was Hokusai who re-invented the stories of the Water Margin, the great medieval tales of Chinese heroes, holed up in the marshes… (the mythical, liminal spaces between fact and fiction) when he illustrated the translated edition of the novels in the 1810’s.


Hokusai (1760-1849) Portraits of the Heroes of the Suikoden

Hokusai (1760-1849) Portraits of the Heroes of the Suikoden

His illustrations invented the muscle-bound, terrifying warriors, decorated head to toe with writhing tattoos. Hokusai‘s pictures were only small black and white illustrations, nevertheless they inspired Kunisada to make colour prints in the early 1820’s on the same subject and that in turn prompted Kuniyoshi to copy these and enlarge upon them, eventually publishing his own Hokusai and Kunisada inspired series of Suikoden warriors. It is these single sheet full colour, bravura pieces that inspire the drawing and shapes of modern full body or sleeve tattoos.

Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Battle Tales of the Han and Chu: Fan Kuai, 1827.

Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Battle Tales of the Han and Chu: Fan Kuai, 1827.

I expect that this debt to ukiyo-e is well known in the circles of tattoo afficionados and indeed, many of the images at the recent fair were directly taken from well known Kuniyoshi prints. Outside of those circles, I am sure that as in so many areas, the debt that the modern world owes to the design genius of ‘pre-modern’ Japan goes unrecognised.

Posted in Floating World, Hokusai, Japanese Art, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Tattoo Art, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Christopher Bucklow at Southampton City Art Gallery

Bucklow, The Moon's Inner Vision

Bucklow, The Moon’s Inner Vision, 2016. Oil on canvas, 213cm x 510cm

The celebrated international artist Christopher Bucklow is well known to followers of the Toshidama Gallery. The artist is currently celebrating a lifetime retrospective of paintings and photographs at the Southampton City Art Gallery in England. Toshidama Gallery director, Alex Faulkner has long been a collaborator with Bucklow, on joint exhibitions as half of the fictional duo Dimitri & Wenlop, and now as author of the lavish catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

Chris Bucklow Peel 2013

Before the final hang at Southampton. Foreground, Peel, Oil on Canvas. 2013

The show brims with exhilirating references to the ukiyo-e prints of which Bucklow is an avid collector. Outstanding among these though, is a recent painting; The Moon’s Inner Vision from 2016. (top).

The Moon’s Inner Vision exemplifies many of the themes which dominate the paintings in this huge exhibition. As with many of Bucklow’s recent works, the picture respects the living space of each group or single figure – there is a single canvas dedicated to each set. This device, this way of dividing the picture, is a nod to the ukiyo-e tradition of the nineteenth century, whereby kabuki prints especially were sold either as individual sheets or in multiples of two or three… the final design being more frequently conceived as a panoramic triptych. Of course, the idea was that the avid fan could save money by not purchasing the prints of his less favoured actors. I suspect Chris Bucklow might not be open to such an offer on this particular work!

The Moon's Inner Vision, 2016

The Moon’s Inner Vision, 2016. (detail of centre panel)

Central to the piece is the enigmatic figure above which is derived from two sources, the first, a print by Kunisada of the Ghost of Oiwa from a triptych depicting the actors Ichikawa Ebizô V as Tamiya Iemon on the right and Onoe Kikugorô III as the Ghost of Oiwa in the centre.

Kunisada, The Ghost of Oiwa, 1836.

Kunisada, The Ghost of Oiwa, 1836. Woodblock Print.

Bucklow has transformed the figure. In kabuki dramas,  Oiwa is the hapless victim of her miserable husband and his scheming lover. Interestingly, she is always depicted as the disfigured monster that was her fate before her murder. Kunisada here chooses to show her as a great beauty. Bucklow has transformed… rescued, even, Oiwa and turned her into a Madonna, a Mary. The magical transformation is effected by splicing (grafting) Kunisada’s Oiwa onto the outstanding painting by Paul Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria, (Hail Mary). Bucklow has decorated his Oiwa with the rich Tahitian colours and the specific vegetation of the exotic and living Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Hail Mary, 1891

I want to break off here and talk briefly about grafting, (vegetation in fact). Bucklow’s very earliest mature work was exhibiting unlikely, grafted hybrids of commercial or household plants. The works themselves were plant forms that he had either altered genetically or otherwise combined by grafting species together. (Hyacinthus Orientalis at Selborne, Dianthus chris eubank, Potato-tomato plant, Pear-hawthorn graft, variously shown in 1993 at the Lisson gallery, London and in 1996 at the Museum of Modern art in Oxford).

His practice of combining; colliding disparate things to create surprising and new objects has its basis in these plant based works which became a constant through many of his ideas and his made pieces, photographs and latterly, paintings. This fertilisation, is unpredictable, fecund, and bountiful. As in this hybrid painting where the vegetation is Gauguin’s, and the stem is Kunisada’s it produces a hybrid ‘Mary’. A mother Godess figure, the Dream Sender, the Queen of Heaven, the Repair between East and West. It is the central figure that links, via the spirals of tarot cards, the bound figures in the left panel with the ominous, Balzacian figure that towers in the right.

The bound figures in the left hand panel are derived from a William Blake print, Vision of the Daughters of Albion…. Bromion and Oothon:

Blake's Vision of the Daughters of Albion…. Bromion and Oothon.

William Blake, Blake’s Vision of the Daughters of Albion…. Bromion and Oothon.

They represent an aspect of the artist in a dream, as does the ‘released’, combined form on the right, itself derived from a 2016 painting by Bucklow in the exhibition called The Repair.

There is a lot to take in here. The painting is enormous… over five metres long. The central panel, this hybridised Mary figure… a distant echo of Gauguin, of tragic, (rescued now) Oiwa, and even another figure in Bucklow’s pantheon, Eliot’s Mm. Sostrisis. She is the Moon of the title, the visionary, the repairer and the soothsayer.

Oothon, one of the suggested figures on the left is of course another version of Oiwa and her doomed but vengeful husband. Oothoon, (the female) is in love with Theotormon, who represents the chaste man, filled with a false sense of righteousness. Oothoon desires Theotormon but is suddenly, violently raped by Bromion (pictured above). After Oothon is raped neither Bromion nor Theotormon want anything to do with her. Oothon and Oiwa are similar, aren’t they? They are both  victims of the rage and passion of men. The powerful figure in the centre of the picture, the Dream Sender, restores and repairs the balance… the yin and the yang, if you like. The figure on the right, the repaired lovers,  reveals the longed for truce which eludes us all.

Illustration of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

A further twist is the relationship that Blake made implicit in his print of Bromion and Oothon with the often repeated allegory of Plato’s Cave, (illustrated above). Blake used Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Visions of the Daughters of Albion as a theme for the three characters not being able to understand the true nature of reality, without being hindered by convention. By coincidence, the title of the catalogue essay for Bucklow’s retrospective is Bucklow’s Cave. It argues that the artist uses Plato’s analogy as the primary motivation behind the making of his work, as for Bucklow, the real drama takes place behind the screen.

Christopher Bucklow, Said Now and For All Time is at Southampton City Art Gallery until 13 January 2018.






Posted in Chris Bucklow, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Paul Gauguin, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ukiyo-e Heroes

Film production company, Rivertime Entertainment wrote to us at the Toshidama Gallery recently, promoting their latest film. Ukiyo-e Heroes is an outstanding and generous piece of work. It documents the collaboration of David Bull, a modern woodblock carver, printer and artisan with designer and comic book and game specialist Jed Henry. In 2010, Jed contacted the older, David Bull who has spent most of his life living and working in Japan, refining the traditional skills of a Japanese woodblock artist. Jed had the idea to take modern gamer images and reproduce them using traditional Edo techniques and materials.

Yokai Dracul. Woodblock print designed by Jed Henry

Yokai Dracul. Woodblock print designed by Jed Henry and produced by David Bull.

The results are really terrific – a proper meeting of two disparate cultures and skills, producing something very fresh and very engaging. The traditional skills of David Bull really come alive with these fresh, vibrant images. I confess that the re-making of old prints in the manner of the nineteenth century leaves me cold. Despite the extraordinary technical skill that Bull brings to say, his reproduction of Hokusai’s Great Wave, the piece for all its technical brilliance is a dead thing. The original piece is alive and shouts with the joy of nature, of life, of existence.

The same is true even when artists make copies of their own works. William Blake’s careful reproductions of his earlier works are very inferior to the verve of the original mono-prints and engravings.

Trailers for the movie which is an account of the two artist’s working relationship are available on youtube.

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