In ukiyo-e, as in all prints produced from blocks, there is little margin for hesitation – no grey area for the artist to prevaricate. In relief printing at its most basic, there is only the presence of a mark (black or colour on a white ground) or the absence of a mark (white on a black or coloured ground); in other words a thing is either there or not there. It is within this convention of positive and negative that the artist has to work. Western art in contrast to art of the East, has so often been concerned with shades, with transitions and shadows… what lies between a thing and another thing, rather than the thing itself. This liminal convention has its roots not only in the West’s obsession with finessing, (a subject or an idea) but in the evolution of fresco and easel painting in the middle ages – two media that lend themselves to gradation, subtlety and continuity of surface. Western art is slippery – evasive in its margins – compared to the tradition of the East which draws much more upon gesture and the moment and all that that implies. In intaglio printing as a whole (and I’m not including advanced technique here) there is little space for manoeuvre in the edges, the shades or the transitions of a mark.
Conventionally, scale determines the relative distance from the picture plane of the thing depicted… the further away an object is, the smaller it will be – we determine relative space between objects according to relative size. In black and white block prints, this is pretty well the only way to ‘open’ the depth of field in the picture. Scale has not always been determined this way; before the Renaissance, scale was determined by importance – that is, the importance of the figures or the action in the scene – this of course played havoc with realism and the illusion in the picture. In the twentieth century, less importance than ever was given to realism and yet in painting, emphasis remains rooted in easel painting conceits albeit in different forms.
The work of the international contemporary artist Paul Morrison very nicely plays with these issues of scale and of immediacy without obligation to convention. His mainly black and white wall pieces display no hesitation and give little clue to what might happen between the spaces of these huge constructions. Denying himself the luxury of the broken edge, Morrison’s work, grandly scaled though it is, shows a marked resonance towards the uncompromising scenic depictions of Hiroshige, particularly in his ishizuri landscapes of the 1840’s.
Morrison has recently completed a large scale block print, conceived and commenced as a woodblock in the traditional manner and executed (albeit in lino) by skilled Japanese woodblock carvers. The piece is enormous for a single sheet print, measuring over 38 by 50 inches; what is interesting for us, from the perspective of the ukiyo-e scene and what came later, is its freshness, its visual vocabulary and its power to play so elegantly with space using so few available means.
Looking at the Hiroshige landscape of 1840, one is struck by the relative scale of the things depicted; there is a deliberacy about the juxtaposition of the small foreground masts and the vast, looming presence of Fuji that dominates the scene. How entertaining that in the Morrison, using the same visual means, one is also struck by the scale of things… however here the scale is inverted; the vastness of the foreground carnation against the discreet mountains that just break the horizon. Curiously both pieces abide by the conventional rule of relative scale. In the case of the contemporary piece we are peering through the foreground plants at the diminished, distant scene whereas in the Hiroshige the artist has allowed the mountain to dominate, albeit inversely to the basic principles of distant things. Both pieces achieve the same end through opposite means. Inverse too is the solidity that we should expect. The ukiyo print is a negative, one is persistently trying to reverse the image to release it into conventional daytime lighting (this print really doesn’t want to be a moonscape). Morrison’s print is also partially inverted – the sun is a black disk and in both cases we want to ‘put the picture right’. The effect of this ambiguity is to create a visual tension – remember the means and the medium that leave no room for uncertainty; how can something so sure be so uncertain?
In the second example by Hiroshige, the bird against the blue background of 1840, there is a similar focus on botanical exactness. Morrison borrows from sources of botanical illustration in the same way that Hiroshige does. Hiroshige was no botanist and the detail of the branch and seeds would have been culled from popular natural history guides of the period. Both pieces are at pains to foreground the specific forms of the foliage in a way that belies naturalism in favour of descriptive graphics whilst also striving for a beauty – a poetry if you like – in the science of observation. In both prints, we the viewer are nose down in nature, aware of the twist and curl of the leaves, the roundness of the shapes and the surprising forms of the natural world. This ‘science in art’ depiction, sparse and monochrome nevertheless holds us – suspended between two worlds of subjectivity and realism. These prints are neither illustration nor poetic fantasy but somehow, cleverly holding a space between the two.
It is a joy to discover that this inherent complexity (in such an inherently inflexible medium) continues to be vital in contemporary art. There have been so many decades where woodblock prints have languished from dull subjects and pedestrian, polite execution, and one hopes that Paul Morrison continues to produce work that operates so ingeniously within such a confined visual space.