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.