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 Hilary Chapman's essay 'Urushibara and the British colour woodcut in the Japanese manner' is thirty years out-of-date and counting.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'