FRIDAY ART CAT
“Tama the cat”, 1924, colour woodblock
Takahashi Hiroaki was born as Matsumoto Katsutaro in Tokyo. He used a variety of names, signatures and seals during his lifetime, including Shotei, Hiroaki or Komei.
He was trained in Nihonga – traditional Japanese painting – by his uncle Matsumoto Fuko. After studying art, he co-funded the Japan Youth Painting Society in 1889.
In 1907, as a successful artist, he was recruited by Shōzaburō Watanabe to contribute to the Shin Hanga (“New Prints”) art movement in Japan. Within this art movement, Watanabe helped to fulfil the Western demand for Ukiyo-e style woodblock prints, similar to familiar historical masters of that genre, including Hiroshige.
Ukiyo-e means “pictures of a floating world”. These woodblock prints could be produced quite cheaply and in large numbers. While only the wealthy could afford paintings by the artists of the day, ukiyo-e prints were enjoyed by a much wider audience.
The production team involved in the production of ukiyo-e has famously been called the ‘ukiyo-e quartet’. It comprised the publisher (who usually had overall control of the process), the designer, the block cutter and the printer.
Once the design was complete, an exact copy was made and placed face down on a cherry wood block. The block cutter then carved directly through the copy to produce what is known as the key-block.
The printer used the key-block to produce a number of black and white prints, from which further blocks could be made for each colour needed in the final print. Known as key-block proofs, these prints feature registration marks: small rectangles outside the area of the picture. When the colour blocks were carved, these marks were used to create stops so that the printer could line up the separate colours exactly.
What was different with the New Prints art movement was that now the materials used were more modern (paper and pigments) and also in style (a more western one).
By 1923 Hiroaki had produced a total of about 500 designs. However, in that year Japan was hit by the Great Kanto earthquake – the worst natural catastrophe in the history of Japan. The earthquake and the fires that raged for three days, killed 140,000 people. Watanabe’s print shop was completely destroyed – and with it the woodblocks of all 500 prints created by Takahashi Hiroaki. Watanabe and his artists had to start from zero – all over again.
Takahashi Hiroaki created about 250 prints after the Kanto earthquake. Most of his designs show scenic Japanese landscapes in typical shin hanga style. He continued to work for Watanabe. But he also published with Fusui Gabo and Shobido Tanaka – probably because he was too much limited in his artistic development by the excellent but rigid businessman Watanabe.
Takahashi Hiroaki’s daughter lived in Hiroshima. According to some Japanese sources, the ageing artist had visited his daughter during the summer of 1945, and was there on August 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb in the history of mankind over Hiroshima. However, family records state that he died of pneumonia.
“Brown Cat with Tomato Plant”
“Nude with black cat”
Inspired by Hiroaki:
Unskilled in woodblocks – I have painted my cat in gouache (a paint that is like an opaque watercolour) on paper. I was very much taken by the red collar of Hiroaki’s cat, but my cats at home do not wear collars, as I prefer them to look, and be as natural as possible.
Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, “Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975”.
I am an artist who makes work of animals and people.
Three cats live with me – Maine coon Orlando, Bengal Pandora and black moggy Rio.
Commissions, and indeed any enquiries – welcomed.