Crows, Crows, and More Crows....

#11 -- January 1, 2002 -- Crows, Crows, and More Crows....

Over the years, being a collector of "crow prints" himself, this author has always kept a keen eye turned skyward with interest towards new "crow sightings." As a result, from time to time, new prints are obtained which then allow for further study, comparison, and contemplation. (An additional few examples of "crow prints" can be viewed via an earlier short article titled earlier article titled "Crows -- As Seen in Japanese Prints.")

The large “jungle crow” (Corvus macrorhynchos) is native to Japan, and has been seen it Japanese artwork for hundreds of years, and according to folk belief, was believed to be a messenger from the Gods. Despised today by most Japanese for their garbage-spreading habits, in the past, various Shinto shrines throughout Japan were know for their annual festivals and offerings of symbolic “rice cakes” to these “birds from the Gods.”

Whatever the reason for their artistic popularity, the jungle crow has often and repeatedly appeared as the subject of woodblock prints. Alone, the artist Koson is known to have produced over 30 different “crow designs,” many of which are eagerly sought after by Japanese print collectors. Of course, many other Japanese artists have produced their own “crow designs” as well. This proliferation of “crow prints” by various Japanese woodblock artists does, from time to time, raise questions of “originality of design,” and in some cases, it appears that even outright plagiarism must certainly have occurred. And this possibility is certainly easy to understand when viewed from the “potential profit perspective” of competing Japanese publishers when they must have seen other publisher’s designs selling well. (This subject of the “copying” of popular “Shotei images” by other artists/publishers has been dealt with in a scholarly manner at Marc Kahn’s website under the sub-title " Re-strikes or Plagiarism.")

Often, when viewing “similar-looking” prints, it becomes a matter of “the chicken or the egg syndrome”—that is, trying to best guess the likelihood of “which came first.” In many cases, we’ll likely never know as the precise dating of may early Japanese prints is simply not possible. In any case however, the comparisons and speculation can certainly be fun. One such example is the case of the four “crow prints” seen just below. Which of these four prints do you think are ORIGINAL designs??? Study all four images for a moment—can you tell which are the "chickens" and which are the "eggs"??

"Crow and Cherry Blossom's" by Hotei                    Keinen                       Koson                      and Koson                

Determining the exact dating of these four "crow" prints is difficult at best, as nearly all "tanzaku" (tall/narrow format) prints of the early 1900's were produced typically without titles OR the margin-dating seen in most other "oban" prints of this period. However, some reasonable estimations can be made based on publisher's catalogues and/or the known time periods of various publisher's production. Here's what seems reasonable on the above four prints:

(1, Left) Artist: Hotei (dates unknown, but active 1920-30); Publisher: Unknown.

(2, Left/center) Artist: IMAO, Keinen (1845-1924); but.... Publisher: Shima Art Company (New York/Tokyo), active 1930's.

(3, Right/center) Artist: OHARA, Shoson "Koson" (1877-1945); Publisher: Daikoku-ya (Tokyo), active 1818-1923.

(4, Right) Artist: OHARA, Shoson "Koson" (1877-1945); Publisher: Daikoku-ya (Tokyo), active 1818-1923.

It therefore seems almost a certainty that the two Koson prints were the earliest designs from this set of four similar designs--with the "active period" of artist Hotei (1920-30) and the Keinen's publisher's "active period" (Shima Art Company, active 1930's) dating these two prints as likely later.

To gain an additional "perspective" of the apparent "design similarities" of (and perhaps outright copying of) LATER Hotei and Keinen prints when compared to the EARLIER Koson "Crow," we have digitally INVERTED the Koson print's image as seen just below.

Remember too, one of the means of copying or reproducing a woodblock print during the early 1900's was to simply take an EXISTING print and then GLUING it "face-down" (backwards) onto an un-carved "key-block" of cherry wood. The carver then need only to carve through this same-as "hanshita" to produce a near duplicate of the original print. (To learn more about the print design/carving process, see our article titled "Hanshita," or Black Ink "Key-block" Outlines.") It's only then a LOGICAL EXTENSION of this "glue-it-down and carve-through-it" process to envision the simple and intentional reversal of the paper image to purposly produce a "different-looking" (but "similar") image. In this author's opinion, that clearly seems to have been what was done here. Take another look:

The first 3 Prints (Hotei, Keinen, and Koson), PLUS the Koson print "digitally INVERTED"

To further support this idea of "how" such a similar looking print was quite likely produced by this method, just below is a final close-up view of the Hotei "Crow" next to the INVERTED Koson "Crow." To be sure, the prints are NOT identical. But the nearly identical designs of many of aspects of the two prints seems to rule out the possibility of two totally and independenlty designed images. Note the very similar "clusters" and placement of the various groups of cherry blossoms, for example. The final "clicher" then being the nearly exact same "positions" of 3 of the 4 falling cherry blossom petals. No doubt, we think, that the Hotei print was thusly produced FROM the Koson image.

Close-up Comparison of the Hotei "Crow" and the "digitally INVERTED" Koson "Crow"          Hmmm.....

A further point which this author wishes to make is that our study of “variant” or perhaps “copied” designs is in NO way intended to diminish or “place a lower value” on prints which are believed to have been done later perhaps in some cases as copies. In many cases, it is simply not provable which design may have come first—nor, on the other hand, is there really any purpose gained in doing so. From our perspective as collectors of Japanese prints, ALL woodblocks are viewed as being magnificent works of art and are deserving of our study and admiration. Indeed, in some cases “variant designs” can be even MORE highly sought-after due to their rarity or the “unique perspective” which they offer to the study of Japanese prints.

The entire subject and study of “variant designs” is without doubt an interesting pursuit and is deserving of our further study. Such a more in-depth study will most certainly be the topic of an upcoming and longer article.

For questions about Japanese woodblock prints, please email us at Ukiyoe Gallery, or call us at (541) 758-1752.

(c) Thomas Crossland and Andreas Grund, January 2003

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