A GUIDE TO JAPANESE PRINTS - BASIL STEWART
FORGERIES, IMITATIONS, AND REPRINTS
Modern Reproductions and their Detection - Crêpe Prints.
AS is the case with almost anything a person may collect as his fancy dictates, the collector of old Japanese colour-prints has to be on his guard against forgeries, reprints, and modern reproductions.
There is nothing to be said against reprints or reproductions which are honestly sold as such; the danger is they may he used by the unscrupulous to deceive the unwary, and the object here is to show how they may be distinguished from the genuine article. Instances are not wanting where certain reproductions have been made with such skill that experts have been deceived by them, until an accidental comparison with an undoubted genuine copy has revealed the fraud.
But instances such as this are rare, and are confined to prints whose rarity (and consequently higher value) make it worth while to go to the considerable trouble and expense involved to produce a facsimile such as will deceive the cleverest. In such instances it will be noticed that great care has been taken to imitate the colours, not as they were when the genuine print was first issued, but as they should be today, faded and softened in the course of time, thus rendering their detection all the more difficult. The average reproduction, however, is generally so obvious once its defects have been learnt that no collector need be deceived by it. A golden rule is, if at any time suspicious of a print, yet unable to say exactly why, but feeling by intuition that there is something wrong with it, discard it.
Reproductions, then, are prints taken from a modern wood-block cut from an original print, or from a photographic process block. Generally the former process is the one employed.
Reprints are prints which have been taken from an original block, but so long after the block was cut that the outline is coarse and defective and the colouring poor, usually from modern aniline dyes. Sometimes, however, to remedy the defective outline, the block was recut as a facsimile of its original condition.
So long as any of the old blocks are in existence, such reprints are always possible, but comparatively few of the many thousands which were engraved exist today for such use. It is simpler to make reproductions.
Reprints, however, are not a modern invention; it is known the Yedo publishers sometimes sold their discarded woodblocks to publishers in another town, who skilfully recut them where badly worn, and sold prints from them. As such prints were naturally issued after the death of the artist who originally drew the design for them, they were often artificially aged by exposing to the fumes of charcoal, by means of tea-stains, and dirt. In the absence, therefore, of clear evidence (e.g. a Yedo publisher's mark) as to genuineness, discoloured and worm-eaten prints should be suspect.
Forgeries are, as the term implies, prints produced in the style and bearing the signature of some well-known artist, done either during his lifetime by a rival artist, or after his death.
Practically the only guard against forgeries, particularly against those done during an artist's lifetime, is a close study of his work in prints about which there is no question as to their genuineness, whereby the collector will discern at once, by the characteristics of the drawing, whether it is the work of the master or that of an imitator. Forgeries, however, are rare, and are confined to the work of comparatively few artists. Utamaro, owing to the great popularity he enjoyed, suffered considerably in this respect, so that he was obliged, for the sake of his reputation, to sometimes sign himself "the real Utamaro." However, he only used this signature on prints which had his especial approval, and consequently it is not often met with. One such print is here illustrated at Plate 30, page 182.
Another artist who was considerably forged during his lifetime is Harunobu, particularly by Shiba Kokan, the prince of contemporary forgers; there are also modern forgeries of Harunobu, better, perhaps, described as imitations, while reprints from recut blocks are also in existence, which may generally be detected by the thick lines and inferior colours.
The old publishers did not hesitate to forge the signature of an artist whose prints were in great demand upon prints by another which did not sell so readily. This was accomplished by cutting out of the block the real artist's signature and letting in a fresh piece of wood in exactly the same place with the forged signature of another designer. So neatly was this done that the finished print showed no sign of the block having been tampered with.
To supply the demand for prints by Utamaro, publishers employed the pupils of his school who made use of his signature. But every artist has his own idiosyncrasies, as revealed in the pose of a head, the drawing of the features, the fold of a robe, or the curve of a finger, which cannot be exactly copied, and which distinguishes his own work from that of his imitators.
In the same way the collector must learn to distinguish between the work of different artists who used the same artistic name, though not at the same time, as such would have been contrary to professional etiquette. Sometimes, when an artist assumed another artistic name, he bestowed his former name upon his chief pupil, as a recognition of merit; or, as was more common, the leading pupil adopted the name of the master upon the death of the latter. Such, for example, is the case with Toyokuni, a name which was used by at least five different persons, thus carrying it down to quite recent times. With only three, however, are we concerned here, the distinguishing of whose work, one from the other, may be a source of difficulty to the novice.
Toyokuni I died in 1825 ; Kunisada, his pupil, adopted the name in 1844. There is, therefore, an interval of at least nineteen to twenty years between the prints of these two bearing the signature of Toyokuni, and during this interval prints underwent considerable change in drawing, and particularly in the colour-scheme employed. Toyokuni's colours are soft and pleasant compared to Kunisada's, which, by 1845, were becoming crude and harsh. Another distinguishing mark is that Kunisada's signature of Toyokuni is frequently enclosed in a cartouche, a device never employed by his master. It is not, however, so easy to distinguish at first between Toyokuni and his other pupil - and adopted son - Toyoshige, though close study will reveal their different characteristics. Toyoshige, on the death of his master, married his widow, and adopted his name, which he used for the remainder of his career.
The majority of his prints were produced within this period, and are signed either "Gosotei Toyokuni" (in which case no confusion is caused), or merely "Toyokuni." In this latter case, as his prints are much more akin to his master's both in style and colouring, it may sometimes be difficult for the beginner to distinguish between them.
The signature of Toyokuni I, however, is generally more carefully written and in smaller characters, and familiarity with their respective scripts and their individual brush-work, will enable the collector to decide between them fairly readily. Toyokuni's early form of signature is shown in the two coloured illustrations at Plate C, while at Plate F is an example by Toyokuni II (Gosotei). Kunisada never recognized the claims of Toyoshige as Toyokuni II, as he frequently signed himself the second Toyokuni.
To revert to modern reproductions and their detection, both the paper on which they are printed and the colours used form a fairly ready means by which they can be distinguished from the genuine old print. Old prints are upon a peculiar paper difficult to describe, but easily recognized with practice, while their soft, mellow colours are almost impossible to imitate. Thanks to modern processes of reproduction, the outline of an imitation can be, line for line, exactly like the original; but even if the paper should be a close imitation, the colours at once proclaim its modernity and afford the safest guide to genuineness. They are generally flat and muddy in hue, and lack the soft brilliance of the old colours; in fact, the difference is usually so marked that it seems hardly likely that anyone with an eye for colour and harmony would be deceived by them.
It is, however, a mistake to judge the age of a print solely by its appearance; that is, if it appears fresh and clean to put it down at once as quite modern; if faded and discoloured, as old. If there is one thing easier than another to imitate, it is age. Freshness, apart from any other evidence, should never be regarded as a sign of recent printing, any more than discoloured paper, faded colours, or damaged condition, such as worm-holes, are necessarily the adjuncts of an old print. Such, indeed, are the first devices the forger calls to his aid to deceive the unwary. Another source of error in judging the age of a print solely by its appearance lies in the water-lines, which appear in old prints in good, clean condition, and which can be seen in any "laid" paper of present-day manufacture. Prints as far back as 1700 have these water-lines in them. The water-lines in modern paper merely represent the attempt of the present-day manufacturer to copy the Japanese, because genuine Japanese paper is recognized as being the best in the world.
The freshness of a print is due to the fact that it has spent the greater part of its existence stored away with others as stock copies, that is, remainders of unsold editions, and has only been brought to light long after it was printed. The "remainders" of a modern book publisher is no new expedient for disposing of surplus stock. Also it should be remembered that, except for a few specially chosen prints, the Japanese did not expose their pictures, as we do, on the walls of their houses, but they spent the greater part of their existence stored away, and were only brought forth to be looked at on some very special occasion, or for the benefit of an honoured guest. The prints, however, of some special favourite, as Utamaro or Yeishi, were frequently used to decorate the paper screens and partitions which are such a feature of the Japanese home. They consequently suffered considerable wear and tear in course of time, and became discoloured by the fumes from the charcoal fires used for cooking and warming. The writer has seen more Utamaro prints damaged in this way than those of almost any other artist; in some cases the outline and colour has disappeared altogether leaving only the black mass of a coiffure.
If an old print be held up to the light and looked at through the back, the whole picture will be seen as clearly as from the front, the colours, indeed, if faded on the surface, will appear brighter; in a modern one, only the patches of colour will appear. This is due to the fact that the old paper was absorbent.
The grace and beauty of composition, the excellence in the sweep of the lines, the rich and glowing, yet perfectly harmonious colours, which are characteristic of all old prints, are lacking in modern ones.
In this category (i.e. of modern work) should also be included prints issued between the years 1865 and 1880, in which the technique employed was the same as in genuine old prints. Such prints, by their crude and glaring colours made from aniline dyes, and often careless printing, which shock every artistic sense, may be at once dismissed as worth-less. Sometimes, however, the actual printing is very good, the outline being sharp and the register perfect, showing that the technique employed could be as excellent as formerly, but was nullified by the bad colours used.
It was also about the year 1860 that the print on crêpe paper first made its appearance, a large number of the later prints of Kunisada, and of his innumerable pupils, being treated in this fashion. Doubtless the process was adopted in order to counteract in some degree the viciousness of the crude colours used from this date onwards, as it certainly has this effect. Modern reproductions are often treated in the same way.
The crêping process is carried out on the print itself, several being treated at the one time, and has the effect of reducing it in size by about one-fifth. If a print so treated is damped and then carefully rolled out, it will resume its original size, and the process is remarkable in that every detail of the design is preserved to an extraordinary degree, the reduction being carried out equally in every direction without the slightest distortion.
It is just the prints of the latter half of the nineteenth century of which there is such an abundance today, and against which the novice should be warned, as he is apt otherwise, in his newly formed enthusiasm, to imagine that such constitute the famous old colour-prints of Japan.
Such, also, are the prints that a collector who goes to Japan is likely to pick up, when he would do better to confine his activities to London. Japan itself has been ransacked long ago by collectors and art dealers from Europe and America, who have left behind only the late and worthless specimens. The Japanese did not realize, thirty to forty years ago, what art treasures they were allowing to leave the country for a mere song; and now, all too late, they are regretting their loss, and are endeavouring to buy back at far higher prices, both for private and public collections, the prints they once sold for a few pence.
The result is that, on the average, prints fetch considerably higher prices in Japan to-day than they do in London, though the finer and rarer examples probably realize equally high values in any country where there are collectors.