Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2007
Amy Reigle Newland, ed. The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints Boston: Hotei Publishing, 2005. 600 pp.; 300 color ills. Cloth $304.00 (9074822657)
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Hotei Publishing is a commercial press established in Leiden in the mid-1990s as a specialized publisher of finely designed and beautifully illustrated English language books on Japanese ukiyo-e prints. In recent years it has expanded to publish books on various Japanese arts, mainly of the Edo (1615–1868), Meiji (1868–1912), and Taishō (1912–26) periods. Catering at first primarily to the large numbers of ukiyo-e print collectors in the West, its ukiyo-e publications are nevertheless distinguished by the rigorous scholarship of its authors, both collectors and academics. Consequently, its publications have immensely enriched scholarly understanding of the ukiyo-e tradition.

Building on its reputation and on the wide body of recent scholarship that it has in part encouraged, Hotei has now undertaken an ambitious new project—the publication of this comprehensive two-volume encyclopedia of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Curiously, the title does not actually mention the word “ukiyo-e” (although readers of Japanese will note that the phrase does appear in Sino-Japanese characters [kanji] on the back cover), nor does it indicate the book’s chronological parameters (seventeenth century to 1926) that appear, however, in the chapter headings as listed in the table of contents. From the title, these omissions lead the reader to think that the book will survey the whole history of Japanese woodblock prints, when in fact the text focuses on prints of the ukiyo-e tradition, with only passing mention of woodblock prints created earlier in Japanese history as well as contemporaneously by other schools of artists. Nevertheless, as an encyclopedia of ukiyo-e prints, these two volumes are a major achievement. They summarize the current state of the field and its history, both in Japanese and in Western language publications, contain practical information of use to both novice and veteran collectors, and include a large number of indispensable reference materials, many available in English for the first time.

Remarkably, Hotei has managed to enlist contributions from some fifty Japanese and Western authorities—well-known scholars, younger academics, museum curators, and learned collectors—to address the topic from multiple perspectives. Coordinating the production must have been an editorial nightmare. Yet the book’s pages reveal the wisdom of such diverse authorship, and reflects ongoing cooperative efforts to advance studies in the field. In this day, when art-historical scholarship tends to emphasize theory and cultural context, often at the expense of aesthetic appreciation, this refreshing collaboration shows that the perspective of collectors remains essential to the scholarly understanding of art.

Volume 1, which includes numerous fine illustrations, consists of eight lengthy chapter essays and thirty-three shorter, more focused articles. It opens with a section containing two essays on the history of the eras in which the prints were created. The subsequent six sections cover the historical development of ukiyo-e prints (four focusing on the Edo period and two on the modern era to 1926), and address major subjects and artists as well as discrete types of prints and related cultural developments. These sections are followed by three others dealing with, respectively, the publishing industry, materials and techniques, and the history of collecting ukiyo-e prints both in Japan and abroad.

Overall, the editors did an excellent job selecting topics and authors for the essays, which provide succinct summaries of their subjects. The best of these go beyond mere summarization and provide a sense of how studies on these topics developed historically, reveal recently addressed avenues of research, use close discussion of specific prints to amplify larger points that place print production within a cultural context, and suggest directions for future scholarship. Notable in this regard are essays by Donald Jenkins (on the roots of ukiyo-e), Timon Screech (on shunga or erotic prints), Hans Thomsen (on the influence of Chinese woodblock prints), David Waterhouse (on the birth of the full-color print), Samuel Leiter (on the Kabuki theater in prints), Julie Nelson Davis (on Utamaro and his contemporaries), Melinda Takeuchi (on shini-e or pictorial obituaries for Kabuki actors), Helen Merritt (on prints of the Meiji era), Oikawa Shigeru (on the reassessment of Meiji prints), Margarita Winkel (on photography and Ukiyo-e prints), Louise Virgin (on prints as reportage of Meiji period wars), Kendall Brown (on prints and modernity in the early twentieth century), Abe Setsuko (on the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō), Chiaki Ajioka (on creative print magazines), P. F. Kornicki (on the publishing trade), Shiho Sasaki (on materials and techniques), and four essays on collecting Japanese prints (by Oikawa Shigeru, Max Put, Robert Schaap, and Julia Meech).

Volume 2 provides valuable resources never before collected in an individual English-language publication. It updates reference materials included in more limited form in two previous books: Laurence Binyon and J.J. O’Brien Sexton’s Japanese Colour Prints (New York: Scribner’s, 1923) and Richard Lane’s Images of the Floating World: The Japanese Print. Including an Illustrated Dictionary of Ukiyo-e (New York: Putnam, 1978). Lane’s text is cited in the preface to volume 1 of the Hotei encyclopedia (but curiously, nowhere in its extensive bibliography) as, “the first attempt at presenting a systematic overview of the field” (10). In fact, the editors explicitly indicate that their book is intended as an update to Lane’s, bringing together new researches in the field over the past thirty years. The Lane book remains useful, however, because its 150-page illustrated dictionary handily includes kanji for artists’ names adjacent to the artist entries, as well as lists of each artist’s most important print series, many with postage-stamp size photographs, all of which are absent from the reference section in volume 2. There, forty-two authors contributed short entries on artists, places, historical events, terminology, collectors, subject matter, and the like associated with ukiyo-e. The organization of this section takes some getting used to, as entries for artists are not strictly alphabetical, but grouped together by lineage, an interesting concept that necessitates use of the section’s Artist Index to locate them. Elsewhere in this volume is a list of kanji for artist names (but only those cited in the reference section), an extensive group of artist lineage charts, publishers’ seals, facsimiles of artists’ signatures, a diagram of print formats and another that points out the various meanings of the inscriptions and marks on prints, a preliminary but extensive list of the many print series produced by the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō up to around 1935 (arranged by artists’ names), historical and chronological tables, an exhaustive bibliography that corresponds to the essays in volume 1, and short biographies of all contributors and translators.

In terms of content, this very impressive book contains only a few weak areas. As noted at the outset of this review, the main focus is ukiyo-e prints. Yet throughout the text, numerous authors make reference to other schools of painting whose artists influenced, and often trained, ukiyo-e print designers. The brevity of these comments indicates too large an assumption of familiarity with these schools on the part of the book’s intended readers, which include inexperienced students and collectors. It would have been extremely helpful if these painting traditions had been included in the reference section of chapter 2, or at the very least, all cited in the index for volume 1. These schools include Ranga (Dutch-style painting), Tosa (an older lineage of painters with the surname of Tosa who specialized in secular and religious themed courtly-style pictures for the emperor and other aristocratic families), Kanō (the foremost academic lineage of artists in the Edo period, patronized by the shoguns and other high-ranking samurai), Nanga (artists inspired by the Chinese intellectual, literati painting tradition), Nagasaki (a group of Chinese-influenced artists who first emerged in the port city of Nagasaki where they had easy access to imported Chinese paintings for use as models), Maruyama-Shijō (Kyoto-based artists who synthesized Western, Japanese, and Chinese brush styles into a new and popular naturalistic mode of painting), Nihonga (Japanese-style painting), and Yōga (Western-style painting)—only Tosa, Nanga, and Kanō appear in the index to volume 1. In fact, alongside the opening essays on historical background, an additional essay on the artistic environment of the Edo and Meiji periods, with special focus on prevailing painting movements, would have assisted in contextualizing the production of ukiyo-e prints within the art world of their day.

One instance where this omission mars understanding is the essay by Ellis Tinios on diversification and popularization of the prints, ca. 1804–68 (185–220). Although Tinios presents an overview of all the genres popular at that time, his discussion of one of these, landscape prints, which centers on Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa (or Andō) Hiroshige, the great masters who defined this genre, reveals a limited perspective. He stresses that their popularity arose because artists realized the expressive possibilities of Prussian blue pigment, first imported around 1829 (205). Although this must be counted as a contributing factor, equally important are new attitudes toward landscape representation as popularized by artists like Shiba Kōkan (1747–1818), who incorporated aspects of newly imported Western-style painting techniques (including scientific illustration, perspective drawings, and cartography); by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), who also used Western perspective in his paintings and who famously brushed sketches from life (shaseiga); and by artists of the Nanga school, who invented a new type of Chinese-influenced landscape, shinkeizu (true-view or topographic pictures), first defined in association with the paintings of Ike Taiga (1723–1776), and discussed by Melinda Takeuchi in her seminal work, Taiga’s True Views: The Language of Landscape Painting in Eighteenth-century Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

These new conceptualizations of landscape representation profoundly influenced the way ukiyo-e artists depicted natural scenery. Hiroshige occasionally titles his prints shinkeizu instead of the descriptive title he more commonly used, meisho-e (pictures of famous places). This latter term is elsewhere mentioned in the Hotei encyclopedia as a sub-category of fūkeiga, translated throughout most of the book simply as “landscape prints.” Only Kendall Brown defines the term fūkeiga in a more nuanced way as “pictures of scenery” (280). Yet ukiyo-e artists used a host of other descriptive terms for “landscape” which were then in vogue to describe their prints and in their titles, including keibutsuga (pictures of natural features) and shinsha (true sketches).

But the Hotei encyclopedia mentions only meisho-e and fūkeiga. Tinios misses his chance to bring these concepts into his discussion when he notes, as an influence on Hiroshige, a woodblock book of famous mountains of Japan by Tani Bunchō (1763–1840) whom he describes only as “an eclectic Edo artist,” rather than, more properly, as a Nanga painter (209). Kobayashi Tadashi discusses these terminology issues a bit in his essay for a recent exhibition catalogue, Masterpieces of Landscape: Ukiyo-e Prints from the Honolulu Academy of Arts (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2003), cited in the bibliography section of Tinio’s essay. Still, these omissions suggest this subject is ripe for reappraisal.

One other important topic related to ukiyo-e prints that Hotei’s encyclopedia only briefly touches upon is that of ukiyo-e artists’ representation of Buddhist subjects. Melinda Takeuchi’s essay on memorial portraits (shini-e) discusses one type of Buddhist subject matter in ukiyo-e prints. However, the essay on mitate-e (parody pictures) neglects to mention the Buddhist deities that featured prominently in them. Buddhism is also present in many other types of prints, including meisho-e of temples and shrines, and prints of pilgrims and pilgrimage sites, talismanic images, illustrated stories of the lives of famous priests, and miraculous deeds of deities. An important recent Japanese exhibition catalogue on this subject, Tokubetsuten, Ukiyoeshitachi no Shinbutsu (Special Exhibition on Kami and Buddhas of the Ukiyo-e Masters), Tokyo: Shibuya Kuritsu Shoto Bijutsukan, 1999), not cited in the bibliography, provides a good overview.

Finally, I also need to address some shortcomings of the book’s editorial supervision and copyediting. A few of the essays in volume 1 will be more difficult to follow for readers less familiar with ukiyo-e because they extensively discuss or make frequent references to prints not illustrated and they often do not provide citations to accessible published images of them, a problem that no doubt derives from budget constraints on the number of reproducible illustrations. Also, when reading volume 1 from beginning to end, some of the essays seem out of sequence. Kornicki’s important essay on the publishing industry might have been better placed at the beginning of the book, following the historical sections, to provide a framework for understanding the context for the history of ukiyo-e print production which would then follow. The focused essay on ukiyo-e book illustration by Yu-Ying Brown would have been more understandable with Kornicki’s essay preceding it. Also, the short essay on meisho-e should follow Tinio’s essay on “Diversification and Further Popularization of the Full-colour Woodblock Print” rather than precede it, because the concept of landscape prints is not fully introduced prior to this point. Finally, the essay on Yokohama-e (prints of Yokohama) seems out of place in the section on the Meiji period because, although they portray foreigners as do other, later Meiji era prints, their main production period came before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It would have been useful to place this essay and the one on Nagasaki-e (prints of Nagasaki) adjacent to each other rather than have them separated by several sections.

While the extensive bibliography for volume 1 contains numerous important references, it could have been more usable if some of the longer sections were sub-divided. Gathering information on important artists under a heading according to their names would have helped mitigate the lack of bibliographic citations for artist entries in the reference section for volume 2, for which the editors ask readers to refer to the bibliography in volume 1. Also, the index for volume 1 contains, at its beginning, a disclaimer that the book’s general editor, Amy Reigle Newland, did not provide input for it. This may account for its problems. Many useful terms and names (especially of artists not affiliated with ukiyo-e) used by various authors throughout the text are not indexed. In instances when they are, page citations are sometimes wrong or important pages are absent. For example, under the index heading for Kanō, one significant discussion of Kanō painting (241–42) has been inadvertently omitted. In another instance, following page citations for references to Watanabe Shōzaburō, one is led mistakenly to a page about an artist named Watanabe Seitei (257), who has no relation to the publisher, while the page reference to Watanabe Shōzaburō’s first appearance in the text, which is the only place where his birth and death dates are listed (280), is not cited. Lastly, in an effort to limit the size of the index, unrelated terms are sometimes lumped together under a single heading, as in the entry for the word “Tosa.” There, page references cite the Tosa daimyo clan, Tosa province (a place-name), and the Tosa school of painting. Finally I need to point out two instances of poor copyediting. In one, a print is extensively discussed in the text but the illustration (ill. 90) is actually of another from the same series, not the one described. In another case, an illustration caption (ill. 157) describes a print different from the one illustrated (which is dated to 1853). Also, the actual print could have been noted in another essay where it is described more vividly than in the essay in which it appears; readers of that other essay are directed in an endnote to a Japanese source (321, note 7).

In closing, although the Hotei encyclopedia is a major accomplishment, it is not without problems; nonetheless, these are minor compared to the wealth of information and interesting ideas presented in its pages.

Patricia J. Graham
independent scholar

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.