From the Edo period to today, artists produce woodblock prints in multiples. While surimono (lavishly printed, privately commissioned works) could be commissioned in editions as small as a single print, the most popular designs were printed into the hundreds during the Edo period. Today, artists usually restrict the editions to a specific number. So, if there are multiple impressions of printed works, how can a print be rare? All ukiyo-e that exist today survived the ravages of time. From natural disasters and war to the damage of use, the woodblock prints that exist today have beat the odds. With this in mind, all existing woodblock prints are rare. Yet, there are certain combinations of artist, printing technique, design, and condition that set certain impressions apart from the rest. Looking to the Ronin Gallery collection, one can see several examples of true rarity.
Hokusai's Under the Wave off Kanagawa from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji
No single work of Japanese art is better known than Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or, as it is widely known, the Great Wave. Published as part of the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830-1832), today this design has become embedded in popular culture, appearing everywhere from phone cases to computer decals. This 19th century masterpiece presents the striking union of incomparable artistry and iconic design. Hokusai is not only among Japan’s greatest ukiyo-e artists, but also an inimitable master in the history of art worldwide. His career stretched across nearly eight decades, yet his creativity never faltered. Hokusai’s unerring sense of line, color, inventive composition, and emotional resonance is evident in the Great Wave. As the sea curls and crests overhead, the fishing boats float far below, preparing for the impending crash of water. Even snow-tipped Mt. Fuji appears small beside the power of the sea. The Great Wave is an exceptionally modern work: the flat areas of color and precise black outlines, opened the hearts of Western impressionists and post-impressionists. Just as this work was popular among its contemporaries, the Great Wave continues to inspire audiences worldwide. The design has served as the centerpiece of many exhibitions of Japanese and East Asian art and sets record prices at auction. This summer, this print was on view at the British Museum in the exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.
Sharaku's Sawamura Sojuro as Nagoya and Segawa Kikunojo as Katsuragi
The rarity of Sharaku’s work is amplified the brevity of his career. Very little is known about Sharaku, though his work marks a major turning point in ukiyo-e portraiture. During his ten-month career, his prints were of such high caliber that critics today compare him to Rembrandt. His entire oeuvre numbers around 100 designs, mostly kabuki actors, marked by satire and unfaltering wit. His work allows the viewer an intimate understanding of the subject, looking beyond the role to the actor behind it. This can be seen in the distinctive facial features of the figures in Sawamura Sojuro as Nagoya and Segawa Kikunojo as Katsuragi (c.1794). While this work is inherently rare due to its artist, the fine condition of the delicate mica background and the striking preservation of color enhances this rarity.
Utamaro's Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome
Though Utamaro designed many images of courtesans, Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome (c.1793-1794) is a masterpiece. As the elegant Wakaume glances behind her, a small kamuro glances around her side. Her layered kimono slides down her gracefully sloped shoulders, but she catches the left edges with her delicate figures. The rarity of this work derives from the quality of its printing and its impeccable condition. This print boasts very good color, impression, and state, as well as an intact mica ground. Printed straight to the paper, powdered mica creates a silver-white surface, yet in this case, a pink ink (likely safflower rose) is printed beneath the glue. As mica is particularly vulnerable to humidity and handling, it is exceptional that the mica ground remains so beautifully unblemished on this print. Combined with the elegance of the composition and the renown of the artist, the condition and technique make this impression a remarkable print.
Hokusai’s Hawk in Flight
Printed in 1840, Hokusai’s hawk raises its wings mid-flight against the gradient of the sky. Its long talon grazes the curves of the cloud to the right of the composition. This print presents both a rare design and an uncommon format. This recent acquisition is believed to be one of only four impressions in existence; the other impressions can be found in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Edo Museum, and a private collection. The scarcity of this design makes it a rare and desirable work. This rarity is enhanced through its uchiwa-e, or fan print, format. These prints were designed to be cut from their rectangular sheets and used to decorate the hand fans popular in Edo. Due to this active function, uchiwa-e are scarce today. This elusive of format and striking design mark this hawk print as a true treasure.
Shiko Munakata's Ten Disciples of Buddha
The rarity of the Ten Great Disciples of Buddha derives from the individual works as well as the set as a whole. Munakata began work on this renowned series in 1939. Carved from katsura wood, each disciple measures over three feet tall. Carving sharp, graphic lines and embracing white space, Munakata rendered distinct personalities in the form of Buddha’s principal disciples. Composed of ten disciples and two bodhisattvas, this series stirred international praise, winning First Prize in printmaking at the annual print exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland in 1952, the 1955 Sao Paulo Biennial, as well as the 1956 Venice Biennale. The disciples that were on view in the gallery all belong to the same edition, compounding the prestige of the individual disciples into an exceptionally rare collection. Today these same disciples can be found in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.