Listen to this article
In 19th-century France, Israel Goldman tells me, “Would you like to see my Japanese prints?” was a coded invitation to view pornography. Yet Japanese art comprises subjects from the most salacious to the most serene, and Goldman deals in everything. He is an expert in shunga, or Japanese erotica (translated as “pictures of spring”, another circumlocution); he is also the man who sold the British Museum one of the most expensive Japanese prints of all time – and arguably the most perfect – Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave”.
Goldman trades in ukiyo-e: Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th to the 20th century. The name means “pictures of the floating world”, and the works often record the busy surface of a world in flux – everything from prostitutes to stage actresses, street vendors to fireworks. The term has become synonymous with that famous image of three boats of fishermen tossed on the surface of a raging ocean, threatened by an immense okinami wave. Goldman sold his early impression of the Hokusai work to the British Museum for £130,000 in 2008. Since its creation in about 1831, the work has swelled in both value and esteem; such a print might originally have cost the same as a bowl of noodles, Goldman says offhand.
Institutions are beginning to recognise the beauty and popular potential of Japanese prints, which many observers consider to be long undervalued. In the 1990s, before the Japanese economy went into decline, prices were being pushed up and ukiyo-e works by Sharaku, another great 18th-century master, could fetch up to £200,000. “Now, although prices are beginning to stabilise, a Sharaku is worth considerably less,” says Suzannah Yip, head of the Japanese department at Bonhams. She believes that, “in general, most Japanese art is undervalued”, which she attributes partly to the fact that “as opposed to the Chinese, the Japanese don’t collect en masse, despite remaining wealthy in a per capita sense”. Only those artists who have what Yip calls a “brand following” outside Japan – among them Hokusai – command high prices. For art lacking that cachet, she believes that “the quality is not reflected in its price, and there is a lot of potential for the value to increase. There are no artists alive able to make prints of the same quality as those of the past.”
Goldman also believes that Japanese prints remain severely underpriced in comparison to their western counterparts. You would be hard pressed to find an early impression of a print by Rembrandt or Dürer in pristine condition for less than £10,000 but Goldman sells works by Japanese greats for less than £1,000. He shows me one by Yoshitoshi, a master of the macabre, depicting a cormorant fisherman in Buddhist Japan, that still shows the grain of the woodblock from which it was printed. Dating from 1885, it looks as though it was pressed yesterday, and such clarity is a determining factor in the value of antique print. Versions of “The Great Wave” were printed from the original keyblocks as late as 1890, by which time the engravings were so worn out as to render the image almost unrecognisable.
Dealing in or collecting Japanese art has a further advantage over specialising in western masters in that phenomenal new finds are still possible – even frequent. According to Goldman, every few months someone might unearth an uncatalogued Hokusai print, or a drawing by Yoshitoshi.
Details matter. Goldman points out the black gloss given to the night sky above the fishermen in the Yoshitoshi, explaining that this was achieved by buffing the block and overprinting, then directs my attention to an area of smooth vermilion pressed with a layer of silk to create a patina. Such features give a sense of layering, of depth, to the prints that they might otherwise lack; there is no Brunelleschi in Japanese art history, and, as late as the 19th century, there was no widespread knowledge of geometric perspective. They also add to the fascination of the subject for connoisseurs.
“Like most people mad about things,” Goldman says, “as a young child I collected coins and I collected fountain pens and I collected stamps.” His passion for prints began in the late 1960s; when Goldman was 11 his family lived in London, around the corner from one of the few Japanese print dealers in Europe at the time. “He was a fellow called Jack Sassoon, a distant relative of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, and he didn’t mind an obnoxious 11-year-old American kid looking through his prints,” recalls Goldman. “At that time, for £10 or £20 you could buy a pretty good Hiroshige.”
Goldman went on to Harvard where he took a freshman seminar on Japanese prints. But he believes that Britain remains the best place outside Japan to study Japanese art. This is partly due to the work of Timothy Clark, now head of Japanese art at the British Museum, who has put on a series of groundbreaking exhibitions.
In 2009 a Clark-curated exploration of printwork by Kuniyoshi, another Japanese master, held at the Royal Academy drew 90,000 visitors – a record, Goldman says, for a Japanese print event in Europe.
But that record stands to be broken by Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, an exhibition of Japanese erotica now running at the British Museum, a collaborative effort by Japanese print scholars from all over the world. Despite the subject matter, Goldman says it is “really serious, anthropologically fascinating, and the art is fantastic”.
Meanwhile, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is running an exhibition called The Night of Longing: Love and Desire in Japanese Prints. So if you want to see pictures of spring – and octopuses – this autumn, these are the places to look. When I ask Goldman whether salacious shunga prints still attract seedy buyers, I get a surprising answer. “I sell most of my shunga to major institutions, because they don’t have any and they realise it’s important.”
‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’, to January 4, britishmuseum.org
‘The Night of Longing: Love and Desire in Japanese Prints’, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, to January 14, fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
Traditional prints in the contemporary world: Ukiyo-e meets new media heroes
The making of ukiyo-e prints involves intensely skilled and complex craft processes, as well as paper of extremely high quality. Called washi, this paper has been created by expert craftsmen in exactly the same way – in fact, in exactly the same village – for the past 300 years.
One such craftsman, a Japanese National Living Treasure, is IwanoIchibei IX, who supplies paper to two men invigorating the ancient process of woodblock printing in a new way. In August last year, Jed Henry and Dave Bull – who has practised traditional printmaking in Tokyo for more than 25 years – launched “Ukiyo-e Heroes”, a project creating traditional woodblock prints of contemporary video game characters in medieval costume. Their Kickstarter appeal surpassed the initial goal of raising $10,000 by more than $300,000, making the venture the most successful art project on Kickstarter to date. What could be more appropriate than reinvigorating an art form concerned with ephemera, heroes, swords and dragons, than in the depiction of the virtual ephemera that derives so often from Japanese art and legend? For a guide to the process of traditional woodblock printmaking, Bull offers an excellent series of videos on YouTube.
Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published