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What is Kappazuri?

In honor of our very special Yoshitoshi Mori (1898–1992) exhibition, this week we’d like to focus on kappazuri, an innovative stencil printing technique that straddles the boundary of art and traditional craft.

Yoshitoshi Mori. Taira no Tomomori. 1985.

While Mori created some woodblock prints and paintings, he completed the majority of his prints by sequentially layering color and form with self-cut stencils. In these kappazuri prints, he translated his 30 years of kimono dyeing experience to paper. Mori’s printing process began with a sheet of shibugami; a stencil paper made from several sheets of smoke-cured, handmade kozo (mulberry) paper adhered together with persimmon tannin. He pasted his design onto this flexible, strong, and water-resistant stencil paper before using a sharp knife to remove all spaces destined for color. He was left with the skeleton of his design, the key impression (omogata), and several color stencils. Mori removed the original design from the stencil paper, wet the stencil to increase flexibility, and reinforced thin lines with silk gauze. He brushed on each color, progressing from light to dark. With each layer of ink, he protected whitespace and existing color with a color-resistant paste (noribuse). The use of this paste makes Mori’s process his own, combining standard stencil printing technique with stencil dyeing (katazome). After all colors had been applied, he imparted the rich, india ink outlines of the composition using the key impression. When this final ink layer dried, he washed away the paste by submerging the print in water and allowed the completed print to dry.

Yoshitoshi Mori. Stencil for Inland Sea Battle of Heike and Genji. 1973.

The roots of this printing method trace back to Nara period (710 – 794), drawing from the art of katazome, or stencil dyeing. In the method, paper stencils would be used to guide the application of dye to fabric, allowing complex patterns. In the early 18th century, this fabric stencil method was translated onto paper. As ukiyo-e reached immense popularity, print artists initially added color to the black key block impression using sequential stencils. With the innovation of kento, a pair of marks used to align colors upon the black key block impression, in the mid-18th century, full color printing replaced the use of stencils.

During the Showa period (1926–1989), members of the sosaku hanga, or creative print, and mingei, or folk art, movements revived traditional stencil printing. Artists such as Watanabe Sadao (1913-1996), Kawata Kan (1927-1999), and Yoshitoshi Mori (1898-1992) embraced the stencil technology, building a thoroughly modern form of artistic expression upon a long legacy of Japanese craft. The works created by this method blur staunch delineations between art and craft, tradition and innovation.

Yoshitoshi Mori. Movable Festival Shrine. 1958.