Monday, 22 February 2016

Shinsui Ito 'Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Keith'


One day in 1923 the Canadian artist, Walter Phillips, was taken to Notting Hill Gate in London to meet the critic and writer, Malcolm Salaman. There was something provincial and naïve about Phillips' reaction to Salaman's flat, heaped as it was with prints of all kinds from old master to whatever peccadillos or whim had appeal in the market for etchings. For instance, there was Arthur Briscoe's manly array of rigging and seafarers and Elyse Lord's foppish, oriental confections. And there Miss Elizabeth Keith. And what did they think about her? Because, as with Phillips, there was something naïve in her own make-up. Phillips' work looked fine until it came up against real printmaking talent like Ian Cheyne and then, I'm afraid, it was sent packing. In a similar way, Keith's Tokyo publisher, Shozaburo Wantanabe, was possibly tempting fate when he arranged to have an artist as talented as Shinsui Ito prepare a design with Keith as its subject simply because Keith's weaknesses would be made all too obvious.

To start with,  Keith would have been incapable of the bold candour of Shinsui's blues, pinks and marmalade orange. Nor could she have achieved the subtle simplicity of the hands, the uprightness of the back nor, most importantly, the scepticism of that steady gaze of hers. But here were two artists bartering gaze for gaze and while it is obvious that Keith was in no way intimidated, Shinsui rose to his subject as Keith could not. Only look at the brilliance of that swirl of marmalade feathers around her head, that frivolous crown of glory. Who chose the hat? Shinsui, Keith or even her zealous publisher? It sets off the pale north European skin so perfectly. Nothing remains of the young Japanese beauties that were Shinsui's stock-in-trade. Instead we have a perceptiveness so acute it verges on satire. The outlandishness of the hat, the tumbled folds of her blouse, the intrepid eyebrows, that crooked mouth, they all invites us, by way of minute exaggeration, to take pleasure in this rather extraordinary European with her tomboyish, adventurous ways. Look at her in front of that sumptuous car sharing a garland with her friend and fellow-Scot, Kate Bartlett. What amuses us is what amused Shinsui.

I need to credit and thank Darrel Karl at Eastern Impressions for the photograph of Keith and Kate and Charles Bartlett.



  1. Part 1:

    First, let me note at the outset that Shinsui's portrait of Keith is one of the rarest of all shin hanga prints. I've never seen a copy in person, and I've never seen a copy for sale since I began to collect Japanese prints in the early 1990s. Other than the Watanabe family, I'm not even aware of anyone who has a copy. Why Shinsui did a portrait of Keith is probably known to Shinsui scholars, but I've never been able to find an explanation in English. My surmise is that it was a special commission by Watanabe and that only a very small edition was printed in 1922, probably to be given away as gifts. The blocks and any unsold prints would have been destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake the following year.

    Shinsui was 24 at the time that he designed this print, and he had only been designing prints for 6 years. While Shinsui is best known for his bijin (beautiful women) prints which predominated his output, the fact is that, between 1916 and 1922, only 6 of his first 29 prints were beauties. The year he designed this print of Keith was the turning point in Shinsui's career when he started to specialize in designing beauty prints. For better or worse, few of his subsequent bijin prints show any psychological insight or individual personality. Whereas Hashiguchi Goyo used live models, Shinsui largely depicted idealized beauties. I think it is precisely because he was trying to design a print of an actual person that it is one of his most successful prints.

    Keith, it should be said, acts as a cultural anthropologist in many of her prints, scrupulously depicting the costumes of a vanishing Asian past. Like Goyo, she used live models, but her portraits were often staged, dressing up, for example, her gardener in antique or ceremonial robes.

    I say Shinsui "designed" prints because he was primarily a painter and, with one exception, he did not carve or print his designs. That exception, "Odori" (Dancing), was made in 1923, the following year. If that print didn't have Shinsui's name on it, one would never have thought he had anything to do with it, and it shows the enormous skill brought to the table by Watanabe's carvers and printers to make Shinsui's prints so successful.

    I will admit that I used to not have much affection for most of Keith's prints. However, in the last few years, my opinion has changed and I've started to have greater appreciation for certain of her designs, particularly her portraits. While she, like Shinsui, had the benefit of Watanabe's carvers and printers, she also carved the blocks for several of her designs (and also printed some as well). I much prefer her "Japanese Carpenter" print over Shinsui's own crude effort with Odori. See Her Carpenter's hands are very respectably rendered, and her subject appears to be suitably bemused by the fact that he was asked to sit for the artist.

  2. Part 2:

    I have to believe that Shinsui's color choices were dictated by Keith's actual wardrobe. But such bold colors are hardly absent from Keith's palette. For orange, check out the "Lama Priest's" vest, the pots and reflected firelight in "A Temple Kitchen," the sky in "East Gate, Seoul," or tunic of the "Ifugao Boy, Baguio." There are equally bold blues used, for example, in her Japanese Carpenter print or "Man with a Paint Bucket" print (sympathetically depicted with a particularly pensive gaze). Her "Chinese Lady" has an even straighter back with soft pinks found in delicate Chinese tapestry behind her.

    None of this takes away anything from Shinsui's successful portrait of Keith. I think Shinsui respected Keith as an artist and that his respect shows in his portrait. But he also probably found her slightly eccentric, or at least somewhat exotic, and, as Gordon suggests, perhaps ripe for a little subtle satire. The one feature that Gordon didn't comment on is the red cushion upon which Keith sits. While that accounts for her straight back, it only makes her seem more out of place in her Western clothes. Without the cushion, she could just as easily have been sitting somewhere back in the U.K. With the cushion, you see the outsider's attempt to fit in and to embrace the Japanese culture, which is what no doubt Shinsui found so amusing.

  3. Ah, yes, there is a lot of interesting stuff here but time is short for me right now but one thing I need to say is this: it's a convention on blogs to address the author of the blog unless you are using the reply function, which allows a conversation to take place. If you address the readers directly, as you have here, it leads to confusion and also looks as if you are speaking over my head. So, I want to keep to those conventions on my blog because they work and let's just leave it there and move forward.

  4. I think it is an interesting posting Charles. I think there is a great deal more to be written about Watanabe also. One more thing, is that Watanabe's carvers and print-makers worked with a large number of western artists at a time when Watanabe himself was looking for artists who could see Japan and Asia with "new eyes" or at the very least, with an eye that appealed to the Western art market. Watanabe was an old fashioned business man as well an artist himself. Watanabe also commissioned many foreign artists to create work for Japanese artists like Shinsui to replicate in woodblocks.

    1. Clive: Watanabe initially worked early on with Western printmakers like Capelari and Bartlett largely out of necessity. He had difficulty finding established Japanese artists who would collaborate with him when he was starting his shin hanga business because the state of woodblock prints, which had always been viewed as lowbrow art for the masses, had fallen to an all-time low. The one established Japanese artist that he did convince to work with him, Goyo, had given up painting for health reasons, was himself a ukiyo-e scholar, and was also interested in fostering a rebirth of Japanese printmaking. However, that collaboration dissolved after just one print due to creative differences with Watanabe.

      Eventually, Wananabe was able to collaborate on a regular basis with Japanese artists, most of whom were students of Kaburaki Kiyokata. It was Kiyokata who suggested that Watanabe approach Shinsui who, at age 18, was already a promising, prize-winning painter but supporting himself doing illustration work. From Shinsui's point of view, the collaboration brought in additional income and greater public exposure, but this young artist was very much under Watanabe's control and an instrument to carry out Watanabe's vision of the type of prints he thought would appeal to his largely Western clientele.

      For example, with regard to Shinsui's "After The Bath" print, one which owes more than a little to Goyo's print for Watanabe, Shinsui said "I made this design because Mr. Watanabe wanted it. Personally, I do not care much about it." In the thirties, Shinsui would be very dismissive of shin hanga saying that they were "merely commercial products, perhaps not worth considering in terms of print as true art."

      Kawase Hasui, Watanabe's other most significant Japanese print designer, was also a student of Kiyokata. An unsuccessful painter who was getting by doing illustration work, Hasui was already in his mid-thirties when he started to work with Watanabe and equally malleable. Unlike Shinsui, however, Hasui didn't mind the liberties that Watanabe and his craftsmen would often take with his watercolor designs, and seemed to revel in the collaborative nature of the process.

      When Bartlett left Japan for Hawaii, Watanabe effectively replace him with Keith (though Bartlett would continue to work long-distance off and on until the mid-twenties), but in addition to Shinsui and Hasui he was also working in those early years with the likes of Yamamura Koka (Toyonari), Natori Shunsen, Hiroshi Yoshida (before he opened up his own printmaking studio), Shiro Kasamatsu, and Ito Takahashi. Later on after Watanabe had rebounded from the destruction of his shop in 1923 and his reputation was established, more often that not Western artists were seeking him out, rather than the other way around, commissioning him to have prints made of their designs.

    2. But then it wasn't only Japanese artists who were critical of Wantanabe and his ways, western artists were as well. William Giles poured scorn on Bartlett and Keith for what they were doing. No sooner had Bartlett had his first portfolio published, Wantanabe was flogging it in New York. It was a money-maker, pure and simple, and was equivalent to what John Hall Thorpe was churning out in London. You have to see it not so much in a Japanese context but in a Western one. Or put it like this: where did Wantanabe sell most of his Keith and Bartlett prints? Keith was having sell-out shows in the US and had more one-woman shows in London AND the provinces in the twenties and early thirties than any other colour woodcut artist, Seaby included. Haji B

    3. Haji B, you are correct that Watanabe’s business model was to sell most of his prints in the West because the Japanese were no longer interested in woodblock prints. If they didn’t sell there, Watanabe would have gone out of business and he’d be a passing footnote today. It took a much longer time for the sosaku hanga movement to gain any traction in Japan and it was always hamstrung by its ability to be appreciated by a wide audience due to its smaller edition sizes and limited distribution. Watanabe gambled with Bartlett and Keith (and Shinsui and Hasui) and his gamble paid off. His gamble with Capelari did not, as his prints did not sell well in the West (in their day, anyway). Nor did the kabuki actor prints by Toyonari and Shunsen as a rule.

      There are always going to be people who will be critical of the success of others. I don't buy into the argument that because some shin hanga was successful, it necessarily has to be inferior to sosaku hanga (or to its equivalent in Western printmaking). To me, they are equally valid methods of expression, with their own strengths and weakness. Either the end result has artistic merit or it doesn't. I don't need to tear one approach down in order to appreciate an effective example of the other. If one knocks Bartlett and Keith for what they did, one has to equally heap scorn on Hokusai, Hiroshige, Sharaku, and Utamaro, who never carved or printed their designs either.

      That’s not to say that I believe that all of Bartlett’s or Keith’s (or Shinsui’s or Hasui’s) prints are equally successful, because they’re not. And I’m aware of specific examples where Watanabe’s interference undermined (in my opinion) the artist’s original vision. In time, a repetitive sameness would appear in Shinsui’s and Hasui’s work, particularly during the Showa era. Once Watanabe found his formula for success, he was loathe to deviate from it and the movement started to stagnate in the late twenties and thirties, just as sosaku hanga was coming into its own. That’s usually what happens to any artist or business that stops taking risks and trying out new things. But the pre-1923 time period was an exciting time full of experimentation, both with regard to new printing techniques that were used by Watanabe’s craftsmen as well as how once conventional subjects were being depicted by his artists (both Western and Japanese) in response to the artistic principles underlying Rimpa, Nanga, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism. For my money, Shinsui never did more interesting print work than his experimental landscape prints prior to 1922. Alas, they didn’t sell as well as his beauties, and once Watanabe had Hasui in his stable of artists, he didn’t need Shinsui to continue in landscape genre. But the fact that Shinsui didn’t carve or print those landscape prints, however, doesn’t detract one iota from their artistry. (Some of Hasui’s early prints were also quite experimental in their own way, and provided subtle comment on the modernization of Japan’s cities. Watanabe would in time steer Hasui away from depicting smokestacks and telephone poles in his backgrounds and towards a more sellable, but less interesting, romanticized views of an idyllic Japan that no longer existed. At that point, I lose interest.)

    4. Keith and Hokusai have nothing in common apart from a method of making prints. HHokusai was a designer of genius and an innovator within a living tradition. Keith was none of these things. Apart from that the original print movement had started since Hokusai's time and was based on a simple rejection of all reproductive techniques. This was what they didn't like about what Keith and Bartlett were doing; it was reactionary. The fact that people don't care about these issues any longer doesn't alter history. Keith could not have made it on her own. This was one thing that Wantanabe liked. She was wasn't going to go off like Goyo or Bartlett. This post is not so much about Shinsui as Keith's limitations and so far as modern tradition goes, Keith is an anachronism.

    5. I agree that Watanabe made Keith's career possible and she likely wouldn't have been terribly successful otherwise. She did eventually master color etching (and ultimately became quite good at it, I think, though her output was small) but the Depression was death for the etching market. And yes, she's not artistically anywhere remotely in Hokusai's league. As I indicated above, I've historically not been a big fan of Keith's work, though I have warmed up to certain designs in recent years.

      What is unclear to me is exactly what you mean by "reproductive techniques." Do you mean someone else (carvers/printers) involving in creation of the artist's print design, or do you mean use the woodblock print as a means to reproduce a painting? Unless the artist is carving freestyle on the block, all prints are reproductive in some sense. Yes, in some cases, it is the carver merely tracing of the artist's watercolor, and members of the original print movement were presumably highly critical of that(although the artist was usually intimately involved in selecting the colors used and approving the printing effects). But many of Keith's prints were based on original pencil and ink drawings that were conceived specifically for ultimate expression within the woodblock print medium. The prints she designed are not different in either approach or execution than Shinsui's, and her design approach is not unlike that used by many members of the original print movement.

      But I am unwilling to accept the notion that prints made by the collaborative approach are necessarily inferior to ones where the entire process is carried out by the artist alone. Different, yes, but not necessarily better or worse. Ultimately, a print has to be judged based on the artist's talent and the aesthetics of the composition, as well as skill employed in carving and printing. What might have been a more apt criticism from Keith's contemporaries was that the success of her prints may not have been fairly in proportion to her talent, though like most generalities, even that statement would be subject to exceptions.

  5. Well, I very much agree with what you are saying about Wantanabe. I know I have a tendency to see him as that gross caricature 'the wily and inscrutable oreintal' but only because I just going away wanting to know more about him. There is no point going in for the kind of conjecture of the 'likely that' variety that is so popular in the US but there is a good point here in what Darrrel says. If Wantanabe did commission Shinsui's print and proofs were taken, why didn't it go into widespread reproduction? There's nothing wrong with it, so the answer must lie elsewhere.