Woodblocks: inspiration or expiration?

inkognitoSeptember 21, 2005

I am interested in the woodblocks mentioned here recently and what influence they had on the art of garden design. It was suggested that they acted as a "Sears Catalogue" of possibilities leading to cookie cutter designs or spiritless copies. I am not sure if the woodblocks mentioned in the following article from the Washington Post (August 21) are one and the same but these seem to have had the opposite effect on the European art community

"After two-and-a-half centuries of isolation, Japan had become an object of curiosity to the rest of the world. The Japanese exhibitions at the Paris World's Fairs of 1867 and 1889 were important opportunities to show off some of the nation's art. Japanese officials must have been astounded to discover that what impressed critics and artists in Paris was the humblest form of their art -- the woodblock," It goes on to mention the names of artists (from van Gogh to Rodin) who were touched by them.

Are these the same woodblocks?

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Probably not.. The ones most likely referred to are the Ukiyo-e artists ("pictures of the floating world") such as Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai.. to name a couple of the most prolific and recognized woodblock landscape artists of that period. Their work was rendered in polychrome and highly stylized ..and many gained renown in western art circles. Utamaro was another favourite for his portrayals of women and erotica. Van Gogh even copied some of the landscapes of Hokusai.. not sure about Rodin - but many western artists were enamoured an experimented with 'Japonaiserie'

The Japanese gardening 'woodblock' manuals were: Monrobu's 'Yokei tsukuri niwa no zu' of 1680.. and the 'Tsukiyama teizo-den' published in 1828 [Nitchke] and were not in color and intended purely for garden builders. These were drawn so beautifully, that people simply began copying them (and still do) instead of using them merely as inspiration..

These became the 'Sears Catalogues' of JG design, which took the Japanese Garden to the nouveau riche...and all that was left, was to choose:

" Yes, I'll have THAT one to Gyo"


    Bookmark   September 21, 2005 at 10:48AM
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Thank you Jack.
Do you believe there was some value in "The Secret Knowledge" that was forever blown away by this popularizing? Was it a kind of betrayal?

    Bookmark   September 21, 2005 at 4:54PM
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What's so bad about the Sears Catalogue?

    Bookmark   September 21, 2005 at 7:18PM
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KnR -- Nothing.. in and of itself

INK -- I have mixed feelings on this subject.. The 'secret teachings' benefitted one group in society ie the garden builders and their entourage. They were the ones who would have felt betrayed as they began losing control of their 'secrets' and probably railed against this shift of power as their incomes dwindled. It isn't surprising they were embittered. One has to remember that among this group there were also the 'paint-by-numbers' stone-setting monks - They weren't all gifted artists :)

Conversely, if it wasn't for the egalitarian nature of these woodblocks, a wider audience could not benefit. Looking at prints of Monrobu's earlier illustrations, it's easy to see the Chinese influence on the garden topography and particularly on the type of rock formations favoured by the Chinese. Sesshu, a landscape painter also showed this early Chinese influence in his work. Later, the more 'grotesque' formations disappeared altogether as Japanese artists developed their own visual vocabulary ... and it continues to evolve..

The problem arises not so much from the existence of woodblocks, rather, how they are used..
They can serve as inspiration (arguably their original intent) for designers who wish to direct their talents toward placing the site above everything else.. yet possessing the sensitivity to extract the essence without directly copying

On the other hand, a designer with less 'facility' can only copy .. and produce a poor imitation at best - it is these 'pedestrian' works I feel, which give the 'woodblocks' bad press


    Bookmark   September 21, 2005 at 8:38PM
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edzard(3b Canada)

for interest, the following link has been mentioned before. I sadly do not remember who, otherwise credit would be given.

The story of Somei village and gardening, in which a farmer turned Head gardener, named himself Ihei, .....with links to woodblocks of Edo gardening
enjoy ...

Here is a link that might be useful: Ihei Uekiya of Somei

    Bookmark   September 22, 2005 at 12:21AM
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Thanks Edzard -- I remember that story :).. but is it just me (my Mac) which only allows a viewing of those links to be seen as 'wallpaper' or 'tiles' ? ie - each woodblock appears small and repeated - Warholesque - instead of being a single, centered picture.. (!)

anyway.. I just remembered this link I had to an online catalogue of Hiroshige.. not especially about gardens, but much inspiration nevertheless.. a fond look at Old Japan..


Here is a link that might be useful: The 53 stations of the Tokaido

    Bookmark   September 23, 2005 at 12:48AM
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I searched a bit in Japanese Google for stuff about the Edo period gardening manuals. The link below is for a page which is part of a gardening company's website (hope it comes through --- I'm not as good at this as Herb!). It describes a set of three gardens built for the 100th anniversary commemorative Hibiya Park Garden Show (in Tokyo). The first set of photos is for the 'shin' style garden (most formal), the second set show the 'gyo' style garden (inbetween style) and the third set (with crew photo --- all guys, as usual) is 'so' (informal). The garden plan shown near the start is for the 'gyo' garden.

The text refers to the various Edo period manuals, including those Jack mentioned. It says these books popularized garden building for the masses and says they have become 'required reading' for today's garden professionals.

The text above each set of photos describes the distinguishing features of each of the three styles of gardens (shin, gyo and so).

This reduction of Japanese garden art into strict types and categories is representative of what people criticize about garden design during the Edo period. In addition to 'shin, gyo and so,' the Edo period manuals also classify gardens according to their physical layout (e.g., 'flat' style garden) and other factors. It comes off sort of like a scientific description of a work of art.

Josiah Conder's book 'Landscape Gardening in Japan' has numerous reproductions of the black-and-white woodblock prints from these Edo period gardening manuals, as well as fascinating photos of famous (plus some just plain weird) gardens taken during the Meiji era. (For instance, see Kinkakuji with the pond choked with aquatic weeds on page 171). A really fun book for reference (would not recommend using it to design a garden.....).



Here is a link that might be useful: ShinGyoSo

    Bookmark   September 23, 2005 at 11:43AM
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edzards concern from another thread "have we moved forward in educating and awareness? have people learned anything?" has been clearly answered for me in this thread. Sure there was blip on the radar but with these links my study may be set up for quite a while.
Thank you.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2005 at 7:18PM
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I always thought the gravel of any size garden representing ocean was lacking once I saw Hokusia Blockprints in a Barnes n Nobles book..cheap too..like 10 dollars ha. : )

Not knowing anything of blockprints to be honest I flipped through art and realized anything in blockprints to be copied using rocks was limited when it came to a rock looking exactly like the blockprints image. But to place rocks roughly as blockprints images are situated is easy.

Hokusias Waves "Mount Fuji Seen Above the Waves " ( From picture book 100 views of Mt Fuji Volume .2 published by Nishimuraya Yohachi , 1835 Wow!!! ..there is something with forward and curving motion, hieghts undulating ..lots of energy ..Wave power.Ocean rising so High with wave power your looking at shoreline of evergreen trees tops a few hundred yards away but they might asbe a mile away . And the wave is reaching with tendrils of frothy fingers .

Just idea that all the raked gravel..all the flat expanses meaning water in gardens is well..Could be better. Could be having blockprints nature . So I looked for a highly !! highly truly curving metamorphic bedrock of material that is made of gray an black material. On lighter side though..more whites. Walked along shoreline of lake having this type of bedrock. Laying there in small proportion is Hokusias Wave style . ..One foot long stone maybe 5 inches high to right sloping down to centimeter high to the left ..looks like 30 foot long cross section of even longer wave in ocean . Stone is curving and reaching forward like blockprints . Stones grain also curves with striations following waves motion folding forward but also its spiraling direction..seen in front and back of stone . Where Hokusias genius added frothy finger like tendrils of white froth animating the wave, the stone lacks. So here is perfect incomplete stone where you can imagine the frothy technique Hokusia used .

Place this one stone in the gravel..just one stone in sea , ocean..One wave . A rare stone..a rare wave, a rare blockprints wave. And one Boulder..a Mt Fuji Boulder..rare boulder. Might take you 5 years to find two stones. for a 10 by 10 garden of gravel. A Mountain and a wave within gravel.

Place a curving narrow piece sun bleached driftwood into gravel before wave.. when your bored after raking gravels .There is the boat from block print entitled " The GReat Waves of Kanagawa " . Placed to look like fallen debri. Plant a small tree with sun bleached dead branches near Mountain..as if that tree dropped the twig after you raked gravel.Mands hand in the gardens painting mimicking fallen debri while ironically saying here is the boat from blockprint. Debri fallen from tree in garden looks as if drifted into the ocean..Yet for the Block Print enthusiast one see's a narrow fishing boat ready to sluice into wave and smiles.

Copying an exhisting work of art into a new medium (block print to stone) choosing stone untouched by mans hand created by will of nature yet direct representational art of exhisting art in smaller form of the block print's mountain wave and boat.

Its only verifying that age old concept anything you see in the universe..You can find already made by nature . Even Hokusias block print.

I think this would be different than taking numbered art aspect kids use in grade school.

Example I gave is like trying to find postcards sent by an artist from another realm like postcards from Hokusia's essence found on ground and assembled into garden.

The block prints are therefore innovative inspiration and for me creating much excitement .

I'm sure if I did this same garden because I always found locations where there are waves like Hokusia's in stone laying on ground and many Mt. Fujis ..then nature gave me too much. I would have to admit the spirit of human natures love for mystery came to an end .Would be same as cookie cutter design. I know I wouldn't be first person then who found a rare stone that was same as Hokusia's wave and used it in Kare San Sui style garden.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2005 at 12:45AM
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mark_rockwell(7 Va)

"After two-and-a-half centuries of isolation, Japan had become an object of curiosity to the rest of the world. The Japanese exhibitions at the Paris World's Fairs of 1867 and 1889 were important opportunities to show off some of the nation's art. Japanese officials must have been astounded to discover that what impressed critics and artists in Paris was the humblest form of their art -- the woodblock,"

Interesting to note that the Paris exhibition was a seminal point in the Japanese woodblock print's history. It helped give rise to a Western influence on Japanese woodblocks that turned into a new artform in Japan. the "Shin Hanga" movement in Japan was fueled by marrying some western perspective with Japanese perspective and coming up with something unique.

Among Shin Hanga prints are some striking images. Do a web search on Seitei, Shoson (or Koson),

Here is a link that might be useful: shin hanga primer

    Bookmark   October 10, 2005 at 2:05PM
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