Printing the Floating World

talks to Percy Barkes about the finer points of Japanese prints and the resurgence of Watanabe Setei

Image: Wikimedia Commons

You might not think of the quaint little labyrinthine streets of York city centre as the place to go to unearth a wealth of Japanese art. But just off from the Minster on High Petergate stands the pristine Japanese Print Shop, a little cherry blossom of a gallery specialising in Japanese woodblock prints from the late 1860s through to the early twentieth century. Like the principles of bonsai tree art, the shop has been methodically cared for and brought into bloom under the fastidious tenure of the shop’s proprietor, Percy Barkes, since he first opened in the mid-1970s.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Though the Japanese Print Shop ordinarily displays Russian paintings alongside its eponymous works, it is currently running an exhibition given over to a single Japanese artist: Watanabe Seitei. Up until very recently, Seitei has not been considered an important artist in 19th century woodblock printing, eclipsed by the more familiar likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai. But Japanese woodblock art is currently enjoying a great wave of interest from the UK (with the British Museum running an exhibition looking at the last 30 years of work in Hokusai’s life) and, as Barkes says, “Seitei’s prints are images of which you will “never tire”. So now seems like an apt time to shed some light on an artist who created works of bucolic beauty that have (largely) fallen through the cracks of mainstream critical attention.

There cannot be many artistic forms that are considered to have exhausted themselves in a specific, single year. But this is the case with ukiyo-e, the woodblock and painting style that reigned in Japan from the 17th century through till 1868. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration returned Imperial rule to Japan and led to huge technological modernisations, which unleashed tsunamic social and political changes, as well as sounding the death- knell of the apparently obsolete ukiyo-e style.Ukiyo means ‘floating world’, named after the dreamy decadence of the merchant class in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) that emerged during the rapid economic growth of the city in the early 1600s. Though the practice continued into the modernist period, collectors to this day consider ukiyo-e works made after 1868 (in Barkes’ words) “a little bit naff ”.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

But Barkes invites us to look again. Seitei was born in 1851 in Tokyo. His family were rice brokers, but from as early as 12 Seitei showed a deep interest in painting. He ended up becoming one of the most important exponents of kacho-ga, the bird and flower images so often depicted in ukiyo-e work. Though the majority of Seitei’s work occurred after the apparent decline of the form in 1868, his oeuvre remains extremely beautiful and is suffused with the cross-pollinating influence of European watercolourists. For the first time, Seitei’s work was exhibited in Tokyo this year, signifying a new respect for this enigmatic and distinctive artist. As Seitei’s reputation comes into efflorescence, make sure you do not miss the opportunity to see his work in York’s very own conduit to the Japanese art world.

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