Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The paintings of Ohara Koson

The role that was played by scholars and collectors like Ernest Fennellosa and Edward Morse in the revival of colour woodcut is a fascinating one. In my own view, the revival would not have happened without then, but that is another thing. Fennellosa had taught for a number of years in Japan before he returned to Boston to take up a post as curator at the Museum of Fine Art. About 1890 he met the young artist, Arthur Wesley Dow, and then introduced him to the German printmaker and scholar S.R. Koehler who had posts at both Boston and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and it was not long before Dow was making the first American colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner, which had their first exhibition in a corridor at M.F.A.

Then in 1895, Fennellosa was dismissed from M.F.A. following his re-marriage. (The authorities believed it came too soon after his divorce). Back in Japan, Fennellosa met another young artist called Ohara Koson who he engouraged to make colour woodcuts that would appeal to the western market (and so, presumably help with the revival). Thus began Koson's long career working with at least three different publishers who sold his work widely in the United States and Europe, a publishing campaign that was so successful it is still possible to pick up Koson prints in British antiques centres for a nominal £10 simply because people cannot recognise Japanese signatures.

The collections of people like Morse and co-enthusiast, William Bigelow, were very large indeed, and eventually formed the basis of entire collections at museums like M.F.A. But these men were also scholars who were principally concerned with recording and conserving the artefacts of Japanese culture. They travelled the country for years, not only acquiring ceramics and picture, but recording archaeological sites, just as aware of the effect of modern life on the arts and crafts in Japan as the followers of William Morris were in relation to British culture.
What I had certainly not come across in any British junk shops were paintings by Koson of the kind you see here. I am indebted to a collector in Washington, D.C. for these. In itself, his own collection, which is destined for the Smithsonian, shows that the tradition of scholarly collecting of Japanese art is still alive and kicking in the States. Frankly, it seems astonishing to me that anyone is still able to acquire so much material like this, but then the assiduousness and erudition of good collectors should never be underestimated.

Put in this context, the production of colour woodcuts in the west looks almost like a by-product, except perhaps in Koson's case where the production of his prints was so vast you can still pick the odd one up as you as you go along. I still remember finding two in a heap of disregarded papers after a friend had died. Much of Koson's earlier work was painted on fine silk, as you can see here, though he later used paper. The silk sometimes remained unpainted so that the final effect of some of the prints at least is that much more subdued because the backgrounds were printed in grey. But even with the crow, where Koson painted the background (or the lack of it), the blacks and greys are enhanced in printing and the final effect sharper and dramatic.
What also strikes me is the different appeal of painting and woodcut. There is the effect of scale. The paintings were generally postcard size while the woodblocks were considerably larger. The two swallow images are to scale but not actual size, and do give some idea of the wide-screen effect of the woodblocks. Either way, the limited use of colour is consistent and striking. Not that this semi-monochrome approach was unique to Japan; it is widespread though less obvious in western art. The paintings have a subtle delicacy the prints forgo, but the prints gain in drama and clarity that is the essence of good graphic art anywhere.

Essentially, I wanted the work to speak for itself. What I do want to express is my considerable gratitude to Darrel Karl, not just for the loans of all these images, but for his painstaking correspondence about Koson (and other artists). Please make sure to read any comments by him as they will add considerably to the little I have been able to say here.




  1. As these images suggest, Ohara Koson (1877-1945) specialized in bird and flower painting, a genre known in Japan as kacho-ga. Koson’s initial contact with Fenollosa led him to send a large number of bird and flower paintings to the United States. Although he designed Russo-Japanese war prints for the domestic Japanese market and a few landscapes, the bulk of his enormous output were bird and flower prints intended for foreign tourists and for export abroad.

    Koson is known to have worked with at least five major woodblock print publishers. Most his prints are not dated, but stylistically tend to fall into three categories. His early prints were printed by the Meiji era publishers Kokkeido and Daikokuya.) As Gordon notes, these prints tend to favor muted colors, and often use the background wood-grain for effect. They were issued in various sizes, usually in the long, narrow nagaban (23 x 51.5 cm) or o-tanzaku (17.5 x 39 cm) formats, the squarish shikishiban (20.5 x 23 cm) size, or the hosoban (14.5 x 33 cm) or yatsuguriban (9.5 x 12.7 cm) postcard sizes.

    The Kokkeido prints (more than sixty are known) date to around 1900 to 1907, and the vast majority feature birds. The ones in the nagaban size are believed to be Koson’s earliest prints and are among his rarest. The Daikokuya prints date from approximately 1909 to perhaps the 1930s. They are more diverse in subject matter, including animals, insects, and plants in addition to birds. No publisher seal appears on the Daikokuya prints, but at least 200 such designs are known (and an additional 50 or so known print designs that were likely produced by Daikokuya). All of the prints shown above were published by Daikokuya. A small number prints were also produced by the publisher Nishinomiya. They appear to have printed later in time, and many of the designs are heavily “inspired” by Daikokuya print designs and/or may have printed with some of the original blocks acquired from Kokkeido or Daikokuya.

    In 1912, Koson changed his art name to Shoson and, according to some authorities, concentrated entirely on painting. (This, however, is inconsistent with a contrary belief that Daikokuya and Nishinomiya issued some Koson-signed prints after that date.) In 1926, Shoson began designing prints for the shin hanga publisher Watanabe Shozaburo, who was trying to rebuild his Tokyo business after it had been destroyed by fires that broke out in the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. These prints tend to be brightly colored and more decorative in nature. Over 110 designs are known, and most were issued in the oban (25.4 x 38 cm), o-tanzaku, or shikishiban sizes. Roughly two thirds of the Shoson prints feature birds, but there are also landscapes, mammals, fish, insects, and a number of floral designs. Watanabe continued to issue new designs under the Shoson name until at least 1935.

    In the period 1929-1931, Koson also worked with the publishing team Kawaguichi and Sakai. These prints bear the art name Hoson, and 20 such prints are known. Like Watanabe’s Shoson prints, the Hoson prints feature brighter colors. However, they tend to be more stylized, depicting animals in more fanciful and humorous light, and some even show the influence of art deco.

  2. Gordon’s lack of familiarity with Koson’s preparatory paintings for Daikokuya can easily be explained. As a practical matter, they were not available to the general public until approximately 15 years ago. They were maintained by the publisher’s family or whoever acquired Daikokuya’s business until the late 1990s. In 1998, an exhibition of approximately 140 of those preparatory paintings, drawings, and test prints were exhibited at the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Museum in Tokyo. (A hard to find but useful exhibition catalog in Japanese was issued in conjunction with that show.) Thereafter, the materials were sold off to Japanese print dealers, and most were snatched up by hard core Koson collectors. But I was not collecting kacho-ga prints at that time, so these paintings were not then on my radar. It was only around 2006, by which time I started to heavily collect preparatory paintings for shin hanga prints regardless of genre or artist, that I acquired the last few such preparatory paintings left in the marketplace. Once relatively cheap when there was a glut of material available for sale, their prices had unfortunately risen in the interim. A few others have turned up for resale since then but the window of time to purchase such material en masse is largely over.

    A similar situation occurred with the Hoson preparatory paintings for Kawaguchi and Sakai. In the early 2000s, the heirs or business successor-in-interest sold off the preparatory paintings that had been in storage for the last 70 years. These included not only preparatory paintings for Hoson prints, but also those by other artists like Kawase Hasui, Tsuchiya Koitsu, and Inuzuka Taisui. I bought all of the Hasui watercolors that I could around 2002-2003, as that was an artist I had been collecting prior to that point in time and I knew they were important pieces. (Most of Hasui’s prints were published by Watanabe, but his best work with Watanabe was largely those prints made before the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. His prints for Kawaguchi and Sakai are among his best work after the earthquake, in my opinion.) I later picked up two Hoson paintings in 2006. There were other Hoson paintings I could have and should have bought had I been more diligent but, as I said, I wasn’t into Koson in my early days of collecting.)

    I am not aware of the location of preparatory paintings for prints put out by the other publishers. Presumably, the Shoson preparatory paintings are in the Watanabe family vault, but that is speculation on my part.

    A handy, but incomplete on-line reference for Koson prints can be found here: For those interested in studying or collecting Koson further, the standard reference is Crows, Cranes & Camellias: The Natural World Of Ohara Koson by Amy Reigle Newland, Jan Perrée, and Robert Schaap, published by Hotei Publishing. There is a revised second edition (with a different cover) that corrects mistakes in the first edition and includes new information uncovered in the interim. Of particular use is an illustrated checklist at the back of the book of all known Koson designs organized according to bird or animal type and publisher, with the exception of certain postcard size prints.

  3. It is important to note that the Koson preparatory paintings depicted above were ones made specifically for the purpose of being copied and turned into woodblock prints. As nice as they may be, they were not intended to be exhibition paintings but merely a means to an end. To date, there has not been any comprehensive study and catalog of Koson’s exhibition paintings to my knowledge. However, it is known that Koson reused certain of his exhibition paintings as inspiration for his print designs. I have in my own collection a large kakemono scroll painting of mallard ducks, a design which Koson would have reconfigured and repainted on a smaller scale for an o-tanzaku print issued by Daikokuya. Compare 1d3fcd120b28 with