Here you have the three kanji characters making up the word mokuhankan. The first is ki, the character for 'tree' - pronounced also moku. The second is ita, with a basic meaning of 'board' (or 'plate' as in 'printing plate'), also pronounced han. These two, if combined with the character for 'picture' ga, form the word moku hanga which thus literally means 'wooden plate picture', a perfect description of the object.
Here though, the two characters are combined with kan, which our dictionaries tell us carries the meanings of 'mansion' or 'hall', and which in practice is a character appearing at the end of a compound word indicating the place associated with the object/action. Appearing after tosho (books) it tells us that this is a library (toshokan). After bijutsu (arts), it signifies a museum or gallery (bijutsukan). So coming after mokuhan, it will imply that this is the place where we will find woodblocks!
Coming up with an English phrase that captures the same nuance isn't easy, so let's leave it at that - welcome to Mokuhankan!
Mokuhankan is a woodblock print publishing venture established by myself - Tokyo printmaker David Bull. Over on my Woodblock.com website, I display and distribute the woodblock prints that come off my own carving and printing benches; the prints you will see here on Mokuhankan have a different origin - other craftsmen will be involved in the carving and printing (although I too, will be joining the production crew on occasion).
I will select the prints, I will hire the craftsmen, I will organize the sales/distribution and the events, and most importantly - I will set the standards by which this organization will operate, and that ... is where the story lies.
(I should warn you though, this is a kind of 'hobby horse' for me; and once I climb onto it, I might go on a bit ... So I've prepared two versions ...)
Traditional woodblock printmaking hasn't been doing too well here in Japan recently. Although woodblock printmaking itself is 'alive and well', with amateur groups flourishing in any sizeable community, the publishing of woodblock prints has fallen on hard times, and for most people in this society, the idea of purchasing a woodblock print would simply never enter their mind.
At first glance, there is nothing unusual or 'bad' about this; printmaking had a very good run in this country over a period of hundreds of years, but all things come to an end, all societies change, and there is no reason to expect that any tradition can (or should) continue indefinitely. The attention of people in our modern society is focussed on other forms of image production, as of course it should be.
But ... how do the following points fit into that picture?
- at every single one of my exhibitions for nearly two decades now, I have met any number of people who see the prints on display, study the descriptive material, chat with me for a bit about them, and then say something like this, "I had no idea that woodblock prints were so interesting!"
- in the seventeen years since I started publishing woodblock prints, I have sent out more than 20,000 of them to collectors here and in other countries. For the most part, these collectors have not been 'specialists', or people with any particular knowledge or interest in printmaking. I think it is no insult to them to say that they are 'perfectly normal and typical' members of society.
So ... given that the prints can be interesting, and interesting to basically anybody, is traditional woodblock printmaking something that we should just let fade away? Or is it something that can still play a part in our lives, and which can still add value to society? I think you know my answer ...
Mokuhankan is my attempt to see if traditional woodblock printmaking can perhaps find a place in contemporary society. I am going to publish some prints - on a very small scale at first - and see if I can find the combination of image, quality, price, and presentation, that will achieve that goal.
Everybody in society these days has become used to an ever-rising 'standard of quality'; the manufactured goods we see around us are for the most part incredibly sophisticated in their design and construction. Woodblock prints can be like that, but as no automation in their production is possible (to do so would be to defeat the purpose of the exercise), it is a terrific challenge to make them affordable.
Will we succeed? Who knows ... But we intend to have some fun trying!
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[Update: Over on the Woodblock RoundTable blog, a series of postings outlines a possible future vision of Mokuhankan ...]
Let me do this by jotting down a bunch of 'points' for you. These might seem a bit scattered, but bear with me a minute, for this is not a 'linear' story:
- traditional Japanese printmaking had its artistic ups and down across the centuries, but without any doubt, it reached its technical peak in the late Meiji era.
- as the world moved into the 20th century, mechanical methods took over all the commercial work, and woodblock printmaking floated off into a backwater.
- as a direct consequence of the reduced demand for the products, the number of practitioners (and suppliers of materials and tools) took a non-stop decline from that day to the present.
- the many thousands of people working in this field in Meiji times can be thought of as a pyramid. Thousands of hacks churned out all manner of disposable printed matter; above them competent workers produced ... competent material, and as one moved up the ranks, a relatively small number of highly skilled men produced work of the finest type. The vast breadth of the base of the pyramid determined the heights that it was possible to reach.
- at present, the number of workers in this field can be numbered in the dozens ... not a particularly broad base.
That's simple history ... but there is more to mention ...
- in Meiji times (and earlier) most people who purchased woodblock prints had a clear idea of the quality of the work they were purchasing. They bought junk when that was all they needed, and they bought quality when it was required; and they could tell the difference.
- many (most?) print purchasers today - being completely divorced from day-to-day contact with woodblock prints - don't have the slightest idea about where on that junk ~ quality scale the item they are purchasing falls. That statement is not meant as a patronizing insult; it's just a statement of fact.
- over the last 50 years or so, in the period from the end of the war to the present, print publishers here in Japan have seen their business crumble and disintegrate. 'Nobody' is interested in their products.
- as their market disappeared, and pinched at the other end by the steadily rising living standards in Japan over the same period - pushing up the wages they must pay their craftsmen - the publishers took the route of least resistance; they 'cheapened' their products. They bought cheap paper for the editions; and - secure in their conviction that "The buyers don't know the difference anyway" - they demanded that their craftsman work 'faster and cheaper'.
- in a very related point, it must be mentioned that most of the publishers simply continued to re-issue again and again the same hackneyed images: the Great Wave of Hokusai, the Tokaido prints of Hiroshige, etc. and etc. and etc. (Please understand that I don't feel that the art is hackneyed, it is the endless repetition that makes them so ...) I learned recently just how serious this situation is when I chatted with one of the dealers, with a shop near one of the major hotels. He told me that just about half of his entire business came from two images. I'm sure you can guess which two ...
These 'points' are getting longer and longer ... I'll try to get this under control ...
- in the old days, the wide variety of printmaking work that was available meant that a young apprentice could actually be productive right from his first few days on the job. It didn't take much skill to print food wrappers.
- once that kind of work went to the machines, it became impossible for the apprenticeship system to survive; what master could afford to pay a young trainee through the years of practice necessary to produce fine work?
- all the workers currently active in this field - even the 'honored' oldest ones - grew up in this post-war environment.
A few 'episodes' ...
- Sadako and I are visiting the huge Hokusai exhibition held in Tokyo last autumn (2005), an exhibition of global importance. In the museum shop, freshly made woodblock prints are on display. As we inspect the ones displayed on the wall, my eyes widen; they are beautifully made, completely unlike most recent work I have seen. We ask one of the clerks to show us a folio for purchase, and as I open it I see instantly that the top print is a blotched and streaked mess. I flip through the stack; they are all the same. Sadako sees too, and I feel her unspoken plea, "Dave, don't make trouble!" I quietly close the folio and hand it back to the girl.
- One of my friends is in a 'senjafuda' exchange club. Each person pays one of the oldest most respected print workshops a fee for the carving and printing of an edition of a small illustrated 'label' type print, and when these are ready, members meet and exchange them with each other. He gives me a copy of his most recent print, and I smile and say 'thank you', but I feel ashamed to be a member of the traditional craftsman's association; it is printed on cheap schoolroom paper, the lines are hacked into the block, and the impression is misregistered.
- A few years ago, in one of the used book/print shops in the Jimbocho district in Tokyo; I dig through the drawers of prints in their 'reproductions' section, looking for something worthwhile. Junk ... junk ... junk ... junk ... ... What's this?!!! I pull out a mid-Meiji era reproduction of an Utamaro print. When I tell you that it is 'magnificent', that word falls so far short ... Heart in mouth, I take it to the counter and purchase it for 3,000 yen; their standard price for the prints in this drawer. The shop owners neither know, nor care, that this one is 'different'. That print now has pride of place in my personal collection, and I can say without exaggeration that it is of much higher quality than any of the original Utamaro prints that were on display in the ukiyo-e room of the National Museum last time I was in there.
- I am with my younger daughter Fumi, browsing in a print shop located across the street from one of Tokyo's major tourist hotels. The shelves on one side of the shop contain original prints (Edo, Meiji, early Showa), and those on the other side are stocked with reproductions, both hand printed, and offset printed. A tourist couple comes into the shop, and after a few minutes of browsing among the offset reproductions, pull one out for inspection. They ask the owner, "Is this a woodblock print?" He replies, "This is a Hiroshige print." Fumi turns to me, her eyes wide, "Daaaaaad! Say something!" We of course say nothing, just leave in a hurry ...
- In the last decade or so, there has been a bit of a 'revival' of shin-hanga - the genre born in the first half of the 20th century that was an attempt to continue the tradition of cooperative printmaking (artists + craftsmen). One of the oldest and most respected publishers has re-issued a number of prints, taking new impressions from the blocks they have stored for so long. To see the two versions side by side is to understand just how far we have fallen in the intervening 50 years ...
- I'm in one of Tokyo's major tourist/souvenir venues, a large 'Bazaar' located on a major boulevard near Harajuku Station. The bins in the print shop there are full of pages cut from books - but that's another story. As I browse, a French couple choose a print and take it to the counter for purchase. It is a reproduction of a famous Harunobu design, a woman with an umbrella standing in the snow. But this one ... was printed from a plastic photo-reproduced keyblock, and the pigment had been rolled on with all the delicacy that a kindergarten child would bring to the work. The lines are smeared, the eyes are blotted closed with ink, it is an atrocious mess. The couple is completely happy with it ...
I've gone on too long, I guess; I'm sorry. I think you get the idea. I am disappointed and frustrated by the poor quality of most of the work that I see being published these days. I shouldn't really exaggerate too much; there is good work being done here and there, when somebody for some reason decides to spend the time and money on it (and has the necessary strength to hold the crafstmen's feet to the fire ...). And in truth, what is happening now is probably no different to the way it was 'back in the old days', whenever the old days were. There was a very small amount of exceptional work done, a moderate amount of decent work, and a huge mass of crap.
But one thing is different, of that I am sure. Back then, hack work was done by hacks; they knew they were no good, and they didn't care. But these days, that junk is being put out by men who know the difference; instead of working to their own standards, they have let a decaying market set the standards.
So ... need I say more? What we are going to try and do with Mokuhankan is simply bring some well-made prints to market. If money was no object, that would be easy; the 'trick' is going to be in keeping them reasonably priced. And that is going to be some trick! Back in the days of the original shin-hanga, the equation was very different; the products were created by men working in a third-world country (as Japan then was), and sold overseas in a very 'rich' country. Compounding this was the huge disparity in the currencies - a strong dollar against a worthless yen. The net result was that prints which took a spectacular amount of work to create were still very affordable in the marketplace. Today of course, Japanese living standards, and the currency, have reached levels as high as any other country. But it takes no less an amount of work to create a beautiful print!
Maybe it is 'mission impossible'. Perhaps there is just no way through that economic Catch-22: nobody will buy prints that are too expensive, yet nobody can create good prints without considerable investment.
We'll see. For now, what we are going to do is start small. The 50-block, 200-impression stuff is going to have to wait; our first offerings are going to be small-scale works that don't require bank loans for their production. If we can produce some interesting prints, and if we get the support of the market, we'll take it from there, step by small step.
But of one thing we are certain; we are going to put our names on the prints we send out, and we will do so with pride!
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[Update: Over on the Woodblock RoundTable blog, a series of postings outlines a possible future vision of Mokuhankan ...]