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Pillar and Triptych Prints

Toshimasa Shunsai, Festival at Nihonbashi Fish Market, woodblock colour print, triptych, Tikotin Collection

Pillar and Triptych Prints

 

November 21sh, 2009 - April 11th, 2010 

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer

 

The exhibition comprises two unusual types of Japanese print - the triptych and the hashira-e (pillar print). Hashira-e are woodblock prints with specific measurements - 70 cm. long and 12 cm. wide - and were widespread in Japan from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. The source of these long, narrow prints and the exact dates of their provenance are not known, but it seems that they were integrated into the hanging scrolls that were traditionally used to decorate the interior supporting beams of the Japanese house. Only a few clues have been found to indicate that this was their purpose. Many of the pillar prints are in poor condition, and their colours are damaged, perhaps because, being hung on pillars, they were exposed to the wear and tear of atmospheric conditions.

 

It is thought that the unique format of these prints derives from the attempts of the ukiyo-e artist (ukiyo-e: pictures from the Floating World) Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764) to create the 75x25 cm. prints known as kakemono-e ("hanging scroll pictures") using wooden panels of the wrong size. It is customary to decorate the tokonoma - a niche or recess in the house - with a kakemono-e. Householders who could not afford a scroll painted by some renowned artist would acquire such prints instead.

 

Since the trunk of the cherry tree, used to make the blocks for the woodblock prints, is too narrow for the kakemono-e, the artists joined two blocks together lengthwise, and filed down the join so that it would be invisible on the print. In 1741 Masanobu apparently used boards of inferior quality, to make the prints cheaper, but the water-based colours used for printing soaked into the wood, which split along the join  and warped. So as not to waste these panels, the artist cut them lengthwise, thus creating prints that are only 16 cm. wide. Masanobu called these prints ‘hashira-e', but we do not know whether he actually intended them for hanging on the pillars of the house. He sometimes signed his works with the added legend "inventor of the pillar print". In 1745 the width of the hashira-e was further reduced, to about 12 cm. This long, narrow format is very unusual, and presents a real challenge for the artist as regards design and composition.

 

In 1840 the artists stopped making pillar prints, for some unknown reason. By comparison with the vast number of woodblock prints of standard sizes, only about 1500 hashira-e were produced, but there can be no doubt that they convey to us the finest qualities of the Japanese print.

 

The triptych is a combination of three separate oban-size prints (oban: 25x37 cm.). Together they form a complete work in regard to both content and form. Because of the dimensions, it was technically impossible to print from a single block. It was also impossible, if one could find a cherry-wood board of such large dimensions, to carve it and print from it. The size of a print was also determined by the standard dimensions of the Japanese paper supplied by the manufacturers. In order to create large compositions, an artist would be compelled to join several sheets of paper. Even in the earliest Japanese paintings it was customary to make three individual paintings that would be hung side by side to form a complete work both in form and content. The greatness of the Japanese artist was evident in his ability to create three separate prints, each of which is a discrete entity but, when aligned together, compose a richer monumental harmony.

 
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