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YAMAMOTO Kanae's Fisherman - The Print That Started It All

Whenever I am asked to speak on the historical origins of contemporary Japanese prints, this is the print with which I always begin. It is a simple image - a two color print of an old fisherman, turned away from the viewer, staring out into the distance. Smoking a pipe, he seems lost in a reverie, perhaps dreaming of his next big catch.

Up until two years ago, when I was fortunate enough to see this print in person at the home of a noted Chicago collector, I had only seen reproductions in books. Considering the impact that this image has had on the course of modern Japanese prints, it is quite small (12 3/8" x 10 11/16"). I was also struck by the rough, choppy marks made by the curved chisel. This artist was not interested in creating an elegant image of a languid beauty in the ukiyo-e tradition. He wanted to convey the humble image of an Everyman.

YAMAMOTO Kanae (1882-1946) printed this on his own while he was still a student at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Up until this woodblock’s release in 1904, all Japanese prints were a team effort, mostly because the craft of printing was considered a lowly undertaking compared to the creative aspirations of an artist. The artist would conceive a design which was traced on a thin sheet of paper and pasted onto a block. The carver would then carve the block with the design. Once carving was completed, the block was handed to the printer. After printing, the finished product was turned over to the publisher who was in charge of marketing and sales.

As students will, Yamamoto questioned the status quo and championed the idea of the artist taking responsibility for all steps of the creative process. Thus the Sosaku Hanga (self carving, self printing) movement was born, the genesis for contemporary Japanese printmaking today.

The artists I work with are renowned for their creativity as well as for their technical excellence. Many of them are professors of printmaking in addition to being artists in their own right, keeping the door open for future generations of Japanese artists to be involved in every aspect of the artistic process.


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