Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Yoshijiro Urushibara, a Japanese printmaker in London: Hilary Chapman & Libby Horner


The problem with quite a few people who write about art is that they do not know how to look at pictures and they do not know how to look at pictures, because they have not looked at enough of them and do not know their  Manet from their Mategna. This may not always matter all that much, but in the case of the subject of this book, he was not only Japanese, he had been trained to work in the style of other artists, and then worked with many artists in France and Britain and no-one is more nuanced than Yoshijiro Urushibara. Ignore this at your peril. Unfortunately, the authors do.


But there is more. It is imperative, if you want to study any artist properly, to have a chronology of their work and, basically, a catalogue like this ought to do the job. What is lacking with Urishibara is an adequate number of dates for many of his prints and no amount of other detail can make this book do what it says it does. In that case, why did they try? And the answer is, 'Because they wanted to'.


They are not the only writers to divide a catalogue into rather naff sections like 'Florals' and 'Creatures'; Dominique Vasseur inflicted the same indignity on poor Edna Boies Hopkins in 2007, but what else could they do?  The predicament was a predicament of their own making, but producing a catalogue is one way of avoiding too many critical judgements, except of the very obvious sort. All we get is Chapman saying she believed the work he did with Brangwyn was his best. She doesn't explain why, so I needn't say why I disagree (although I think earlier work like 'Ruins of a Roman Bridge' are very good): what you see here is what he did best.


Obviously, not only these; there are others, but I have written about Urushibara's prints elsewhere on Modern Printmakers. Libby Horners' essay on the artist is very good and well-researched though some material is still missing. Hilary Chapman's essay 'Urushibara and the British colour woodcut in the Japanese manner' is thirty years out-of-date and counting. Why bother?


One criticism that has been made about  this book concerns the size of the illustrations. The standard of photography is good and I would say that everything you want to see is there, along with a lot of things you would not want to, minor work after Frank Brangwyn being my own bugbear. It's the same with the text in the main catalogue, which has you wading through details  about exhibitions and incomprehensible lettering. If you enjoy flipping backwards and forwards, this may well be the book for you. This is a missed opportunity to do Urushibara justice. The authors only had to look at Robert Meyrick's 'Sydney Lee' of 2013 to see how this new book should have been done, but  this is all we have and I am afraid Chapman & Horler will be the standard text, whether we like it or not.


For a different view of the book, read Darrel Karl's insider take on things on 'Eastern Impressions'


  1. I was thinking of purchasing this book. I read your review with great interest, but before I make a decision, how were the reproductions? Both in quantity and quality? Does the book provide, at a minimum, a good selection of Urushibara's prints for study?

  2. The book is well-illustrated, to a good standard and not very much is missing, but the illustrations aren't big enough. For anyone with an interest in Urushibara, it is worth having, but frustrating and poorly-organised.

  3. I don't disagree with certain of Gordon's points. I intentionally tried to refrain from "reviewing" the catalog and instead "reported" on its publication and its contents in my blog post. While I helped the authors by bringing certain print designs to their attention and proofed an early draft of the catalog, I had no say in how the catalog was organized or formatted, and I saw the commentaries for the first time myself when the book was published.

    1. This is not a coffee table book with full page reproductions of prints. It was never intended as such and I doubt that there would have been a market for such a book. However, it strives to be comprehensive, with roughly 230 prints are illustrated (and many of these are supplemented by images of related paintings and preparatory works). Fourteen designs that were regrettably omitted can be found on my blog post, most of which are variants or minor works, leaving 4 print designs unaccounted for.

    2. The book itself has larger pages than Meyrick’s catalogue for Sydney Lee has. Almost every illustration is in color, whereas, given Lee’s limited output in color, most in Meyrick’s book are not. There are many photos in the Urushibara catalog that are just as large or larger than many in the Lee catalogue, and the catalogue entries themselves tend to be longer and more detailed (if somewhat dense). But it is also true that there are many illustrations that are smaller. I don’t think that’s a big problem for smaller print designs like the ex libris prints, the Bruges poetry headnotes, etc., but it is regrettable in the case of certain landscape designs. I suspect in some cases that the authors didn’t have direct access to every print, only extant images of the prints for which there may have been resolution issues if the images were blown up too much. But better smaller images than no images at all, in my opinion.

    3. I agree that it is unfortunate that precise dates are not available for most of the prints. No doubt Gordon has done some additional research of his own that pins down the dates better for some of them. Exhibition dates and museum acquisition dates are noted when available to at least place an upper limit on the date. But for various reasons, the precise dates for a significant number of designs remain frustratingly elusive (compounded by the fact that Urushibara’s prints lack titles or consistent titles). Roughly sorting them by decade would have been an option I would have considered. But as a handy reference or checklist for dealers and collectors, there is certainly some utility in organizing the prints by subject matter (with the florals presented alphabetically), and grouping together all of the prints made in collaboration with a particular artist is hardly irrational.

    4. Gordon and I don’t quite see eye to eye on Urushibara’s florals. I admire Urushibara’s technical proficiency in those prints, but I always found them to be rather chilly. Suitably decorative for any middle class matron’s living room, they sold well and put food on Urushibara’s table but they never engaged me. Or maybe it’s just that he made so many that the bloom is off the rose for me.

    5. In sum, I think that it is going to be the standard catalogue of Urushibara’s prints. That said, there is also room left in the field for someone else to write the definitive critical analysis and assessment of Urushibara’s work.

  4. Obviously, my review was a personal one designed to add something extra to what you had said yourself. I still appreciate what you have added here by way of balance.

    My admiration for Robert Meyrick was for his professionalism and the lucidity of his book, both the essay and the organisation. It certainly doesn't follow that larger pictures would have made it into a coffee table book. But I don't want to quibble.

    I simply do not believe Chapman and Horler had sufficient material to attempt a catalogue of this kind and, yes, I mean dates. They are crucial to such an effort. Hilary and I had access to the same sources, namely material collected by my old friend Alan Guest. Unfortunately, one of his executors saw fit to deny me access to the old catalogues he had, and merely waved them aside as 'a list of names'. He knew better and I assume Hilary saw them. There is only one other date I had (that I can think of) and it was shared with yourself because you have been generous with me.

    There is a lot in this book I don't bother with, particularly the Brangwyn stuff. It just needed one or two examples of the Sketchbook. Surely, surely, nobody needs such a pile! But the whole thrust is given away by putting a print after Brangwyn on the cover. This was a betrayal of the subject. I would have thought they were under an obligation to put his own independent work on the front. It smacks of commercialism, doesn't it?

  5. I have no information about whether Alan Guest's material was consulted and used. The list of exhibitions that included Urushibara's works in the catalog is 77 items long, including catalogs by the Society of Graver-Printers in Colour and the Societe de la Gravure sur Bois Originale. If Guest had catalogs not included in the bibliography, that would indeed be unfortunate.

    Regarding the Sketchbook prints, I can agree they are of minor interest to most people, even to most Brangwynaphiles. But if the purpose was to create a catalogue raisonne, by definition they would have to be included. Those sketchbook prints often turn up as single sheets rather than as part of a complete portfolio and not everyone knows what they are. If dealers and interested collectors can't find them listed in this catalogue, where will they find them? (By the way, when I said above that 14 designs were omitted, I meant not illustrated; with the exception of one design I recently stumbled upon they are all catalogued.)

    I have problems with the cover art myself, not because it's a Brangwyn collaboration but because it's not a particularly attractive or interesting one. There is an Urushibara original floral print on the back cover, if that helps, though it is quite small. (We each have some inherent biases that cannot be resolved -- you put a premium on prints both designed and executed by a single person whereas I focus primarily on the merits of final print regardless of the number of people involved to produce it.)

    The fact remains that Urushibara's fame to date rests primarily on his collaborative prints, which tend to fetch higher prices than most of his original print designs, and his historical influence on certain Western printmakers. (Here in the U.S., he's known primarily for his post-WWII horse prints, since that's what American soldiers brought back from Occupied Japan.) Maybe that will change in time, particularly if you lead the way by publishing a critical appreciation and reassessment of his autographic works. But until that day arrives, I can't fault the authors for selecting one of his collaborative prints for the cover of the catalog.

  6. That's another four paragraphs and the main criticism remains unanswered. How can anyone (not just me), anyone, make a proper assessment of any artist's work without a workable chronology of what they did? Whenever I come to write about any artist, I try to make sure I have some kind of check list of their work with dates. For some like Kenneth Broad and Isabel de B Lockyer, I have even had a go at a basic catalogue. With many, it isn't always possible. Seaby is a notorious example. The information just isn't there and it wasn't there for Urushibara and no amount of illustration will make up for that.

    Having looked, it is now obvious to me that his ideas were developing in the twenties and you need to look across the range of what he was doing at the time to understand that. Going on about Brangwyn only shows how little people know about the subject. If I know I don't have adequate material, I say so. Rearranging an artist's work by subject, as Chapman and Horner did, is inadequate simply because Urushibara himself didn't work like that.

    As for the catalogues, I have some material Chapman and Horner didn't have. It's interesting but not crucial. I am not saying Hilary didn't see Alan's catalogues; it was me who didn't see them after he had died because I wasn't allowed to. Not that it matters much now because the information is in the book.

    Finally, I don't have a problem with any of Urushibara's collaborations, it's just Frank Brangwyn I don't much like the look of.

  7. I think there's a disconnect between what the authors produced and what you wanted them to produce. I view this publication as essentially an illustrative checklist of work Urushibara was involved in with objective background facts to the extent available about each print, along with a short biography and some brief commentaries. It's a survey introduction to Urushibara's work, and never intended (as far as I know) to be a definitive or exhaustive critical study and analysis of his work. Such a thing may not provide much interest or value to you, but I do believe it is interest and value to dealers and general print-buying public.

    As much as we both arguably might want to read a detailed, critical assessment of Urushibara's artistic output, we are in a rarified minority and I don't think there's enough of a market to support the publication of such a book. If dates of prints can't be nailed down, then as you say a proper assessment of his artistic growth, how he influenced others, and how other artists influenced his art becomes exceedingly difficult to impossible. There certainly are many topics left open for development or for further investigation. If this book prompts some art historian or scholar to go to the next level, that's a good thing.

  8. I agree with a lot of what you say here, but, no, there isn't any disconnect. They simply did not have sufficient facts to produce the kind of catalogue any further study would require.

    Apart from that, what is wrong with showing insight? I could do it in one or two pages in the way that I think would interest people. It was the same with Martin Andrew's essay about Allen Seaby in 2014. It was simply not perceptive. As with Seaby, there are interesting currents in Urushibara and it would be simple enough to try and pick some of them out. If their contemporaries could write with insight about them, why can't we?

  9. I think you're being modest. Few people these days are capable of creative and insightful critical analysis. It's one of the things that make your blog stand out and why I'm very much looking forward to the publication of your book.

    Perhaps because Urushibara's son supplied most of the images for the catalog, his cooperation precluded any critical assessment of his father's work? I really don't know. However, by the same token, by refraining from engaging in criticism, the authors have at least avoided the trap that certain other commentators who have fallen in love with their subjects have committed. There is no sense that they have put Urushibara up on a pedestal, nor do they fawn over Urushibara's more marginal output as if it were the second coming of woodblock prints.

  10. It is always the same when you write about people with living relatives who have been helpful. As Robert Gillmor put it: 'Seaby is an artist to you; to me, he's my beloved grandfather'. What do you do? Material I have on Urushibara (that I believe Horner didn't have) needs to be treated with circumspection because of the source and presented with strict objectivity.

    I think there are two problems before we even get to insightful or creative analysis. In my experience, researchers are often better with documentation than using the evidence of their own eyes. People also just do not know enough and that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to writing non-fiction. These writers simply did not know enough about early C20th British colour print. It is where all these monographs fall down, it doesn't matter who it is - Claude Flight, Allen Seaby, Urushibara, anybody. They have to fall back on outdated commentary by on Alan Guest, Nancy E Green, etc.

    I agree they weren't guilty of adulation. Writing twaddle is easy. You only have to look at some of the nonsense churned out about the Grosvernor School artists. Butif Urushibara isn't on a pedestal, he has been out in a frame and it's called Frank Brangwyn. I have been working over the past few weeks to prove them wrong but it isn't easy because the documentation (as ever) is missing.

  11. Given that one of the authors is Libby Horner, a Brangwyn bias was unavoidable. But no matter what one's views are of Urushibara's original output or of the work he did in collaboration with Brangwyn, Brangwyn inherently casts a large shadow over Urushibara that is too big to ignore. He was both patron, friend, and collaborator, throwing work and referrals his way so Urushibara could feed his family. How can Brangwyn not be the elephant in the room when a third of Urushibara's print output was with Brangwyn?