To our readers, I would like to apologize for the very long wait they’ve had to endure in the writing of this long-promised (and hopefully anticipated) article. It’s been a very busy and project-filled summer, so the task of putting these words done onto paper has regrettably been delayed time and time again. Some progress has been made, and therefore, I’d like to give all of you a taste of what is to come. (Please bear with me—more will soon follow as the fall rains have now begun…..)
Thoughts on Collecting
For a very long time I’ve wanted to write an article about collecting Japanese woodblock prints, and in contemplation of doing so, I’ve often found myself returning to the timeless words of Arthur Ficke written in his seemingly ageless book, “Chats on Japanese Prints.” Speaking of his love for woodblocks, in 1915 Arthur Ficke wrote: “they rise by virtue of the quality of their execution to a very high point—masterpieces of composition, triumphs of colour, monuments of the power of human genius.” Years later Gladys Ficke, speaking of the passion her husband felt toward woodblocks then wrote: “Once one knows and has become a true lover, the image is ineradicably stamped upon the memory. ‘I can never lose them, they are a part of my vision,’ he, my husband said.”
Certainly, in an entire review of the history of world art, the Japanese woodblock without question ranks very highly; as an artform, they deservedly stand near the top of mankind’s finest artistic achievements.
What is a Collection??
By dictionary definition, a “collection” is simply "an assemblage of similar items gathered together." That’s simple enough. But some people, it seems, collect the “strangest” things. Bowling pins, metal bottle caps, automobile hub caps, old electronic appliances, are a few such examples. Much of this “type” of collecting is however, to me, hard to understand and is seemingly without merit. But, at the same time, I’ve learned to try to not be judgmental of other's seemingly odd habits.
However, most of us as “collectors” seem to collect things to which we in some way have a personal tie. Baseball cards, for example, are generally collected by those who have themselves played and enjoyed the game of baseball. And so, their collecting of baseball cards is simply an extension of their previous or current connection to the game. The same kind of “tie” or “relationship” is also often found to exist between other types of collectors and therefore that which they choose to collect.
Perhaps oddly however, to nearly all of us who now collect Japanese woodblock prints, there is usually a total lack of any “apparent connection” with anything in our past which relates to Japan. (I may be an exception, since my wife IS Japanese—but still, my admiration in and appreciation of Japanese prints came long before I met Hisako.) To most of us, there is instead usually some traceable previous exposure to a given few (often well-known) Japanese prints—perhaps in a book, or at a museum, or by viewing a friend’s collection—that has instead "turned us on" to the lure and fascination with Japanese prints. As beginning collectors, our at first “curious little interest” often then develops over time into a growing “addiction” whereby our very first print purchased then leads to another….. then another….. and then yet another….
This process usually, it seems, is tied to one’s fascination with the printing process and the very high level of mastery achieved by these Japanese artisans—that is, a growing recognition that “everything we see” in a woodblock—every detail and every color—is individually hand-carved into the surface of a simple block of cherry wood. This appreciation is typically then further deepened when the beginning collector next begins to encounter prints which employ certain advanced or deluxe printing techniques. Often then, the “hook is set,” and the assemblage of Japanese prints is undertaken in earnest.
If I may, I’d like to here attach a slightly “tongue in cheek” self-descriptive piece I wrote in 1999--about my own "addictive collecting habits"--at the conclusion of an article I’d written under the piece’s closing heading of:
"About the Author"
"Returning finally to the author's passion, he is often found to be speaking, not surprisingly,
of woodblocks. While readily admitting that each of us struggles with some form of inner demons,
the author's affliction has proven to be at once both a blessing and curse. While others are possessed
by the various "evils" and "curses" such as greed, their job, or perhaps the grip of drugs or alcohol,
the author's addiction has proven to be similarly strong. Attempts at therapy, sadly, have not proven
to be of any help or relief. Yet, despite its costs both psychic and monetary, his "sickness" has been
perhaps a bit of a blessing. Yes, admittedly, he is possessed. But one must also ask, "Is he not at the
same time also blessed??" "
Why Collect Woodblocks?
There are, of course, many possible reasons or motivations for an individual to collect Japanese prints. One reason that is given perhaps more often than one would logically expect is “as an investment for monetary gain.” And certainly, looking back one can think of many examples of where this motivation was rewarded; where prints once bought for mere dollars are now today worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
However, other possible reasons aside, certainly the most common motivator is the collector’s desire to simply surround him/herself with things of astonishing beauty. Unquestionably, the single most valid and meaningful reason for the collecting of woodblocks is the sheer joy of surrounding ourselves with things of beauty and the enrichment they add to our daily lives.
I personally relate very much to the recently aired luxury car commercial on TV, where an older gentleman is seen walking around the car with an admiring gaze on his face, to the spoken words of something like:
"I like to surround myself with things of beauty.
They make me laugh....
They make me happy....
They make me smile...."
In my own case, I too have found much personal satisfaction in the collecting of Japanese woodblocks. Over time, I’ve found that nothing else brings me more joy than the time spent contemplatively alone in their study or simple admiration.
Others have told me of the similar "healing or soothing effect" that their woodblocks have had upon their lives. Despite one’s mood or possible cause for upset, it is indeed difficult to spend a few minutes alone with one’s own personal collection and not come away a few minutes later in a much calmer or more relaxed disposition. Time thus spent with woodblocks can therefore be very theraputic and calming.
In the final analysis, I believe that ultimate value and deeply emotional appeal of collecting any antique objects of art (Japanese woodblocks certainly included) is their “link to our past” as human beings and the continuity of life they represent. They are a recorded and treasured heirloom; cherished and passed down to us (as only their temporary owners) by previous generations of admirers. They are objects of absolute beauty and deservedly have earned our admiration. They are pure and from the heart. They are absolute marvels of line, form, composition and craftsmanship—unequaled the world around. They are indeed a symbol of all that is “best and good” about man’s time spent here on Earth. They ARE a celebration of life.
Yes--the collecting of Japanese woodblocks does indeed make me smile. And deep inside, it also makes me feel very happy.
I often find myself being asked by beginning collectors of woodblocks, "What it is that can cause (seemingly) similar prints to vary so widely in price?". There are, of course, a wide number of considerations which together all work to determine price, but I find myself returning time and again to three main factors:
To be continued......
(c) Thomas Crossland, October 2002
We Buy Prints