Bird Print History


Published by the Reader Collection, Ontario, Canada, 2014† ISBN 978-0-9937035-1-5

Reader Collection > Guides > History of Japanese Art: Bird Prints


Chapter 3 Ė Shin Hanga Bird Prints



Notable Artists


Some shin hanga artists made more bird prints than others. The work of twenty artists (17%) who each produced at least ten bird prints is described below. Artists are arranged based on their total print production with the most productive artist considered first.






(1) Koson Ohara


Koson designed more than four hundred and seventy bird printsa during the early 1900s. Most of his prints were oriented vertically with a partial border as in print 67. His bird subjects included more than seventy different species with water birds, sparrows and crows being his favorites. The crow has a symbolic association with winter in Japan which accounts for the winter scene depicted in print 67. Snow or rain and a grey background appeared more often in his bird prints than in those of any other shin hanga artist. The accurate shape and color of the crow in this picture were also typical of his work. Koson made his birds come alive by showing them engaged in some type of activity, including calling as in this picture.


a†† See Newland et al. (2001) for pictures of most of these prints.††



67†† Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) by Koson Ohara, 275 mm x 445 mm, woodblock print



(2) Rakusan Tsuchiya

In the 1930s Rakusan published several series of prints which included more than one hundred and seventy bird printsa. Print 68 is one example. These series were novel in a number of ways. First, prints were much larger in size than other shin hanga prints. Second, all prints were oriented horizontally and had very large borders. Third, birds and flowers were shown close up instead of at a distance as in other bird prints. Fourth, unusual bird species were chosen for depiction, including the African, white-winged widowbird shown here. Fifth, birds were drawn and colored to show more detail than other prints.†††††††††

a†† See Nichols (2005) for all prints.


68†† White-winged widowbird (Euplectes albonotatus) by Rakusan Tsuchiya, 575 mm x 410 mm, woodblock print




(3) Shōun Yamamoto


Shōun made more than ninety bird prints in the early 1900s. The majority were vertically oriented, without borders and were relatively small as is print 69. The composition was typically simple with the bird centered in the picture and a plant or some other element added to provide scale. Shōun combined short lines with patches of color to draw his birds. This technique was most effective in depicting birds with mottled plumage such as the Japanese quail in this print. For birds with more uniform coloring it was less effective. The background color was usually a dull grey which made the more colorful bird subject stand out. His bird subjects were usually members of the most popular bird families and each had a symbolic association. Both the quail and chrysanthemum flower in the background of this print are symbols of autumn in Japan.††



69 ††Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) by Shōun Yamamoto, 115 mm x 240 mm, woodblock print




(4) Gessō Yoshimoto


Gessō designed more than fifty bird prints during the early 1900s. His bird subjects included more than thirty species from twenty different bird families. His favorite family was the tits (Paridae) and especially the great tit shown in print 70. Like Shōun Yamamoto above, he drew his birds by combining short lines with patches of color. This technique often made his birds look like they were molting with new feathers (i.e. lines) emerging in areas where old feathers had been lost (i.e., areas of uneven color).† Gessō typically paired his bird subject with a plant to provide both scale and additional color. The background color was more often bright, as in this print, than dull as in prints 54 and 55.† Most of Gessōís prints had the same format as this print with a vertical orientation and no borders. He was one of the few shin hanga artists who also used the pillar print format.††††††††



70†† Great tit (Parus major) by Gessō Yoshimoto, 125 mm x 250 mm, woodblock print




(5) Sōzan Itō


Sōzan was one of the artists hired by the influential publisher Shōzaburō Watanabe for whom he designed more than forty bird prints in the early 1900sa. A notable feature of these prints was the diversity of bird species chosen for depiction. Few were drawn more than once and many were non-natives such as the Java sparrow (print 71) from tropical southeast Asia. Birds were usually paired with plants as in this printb. Sōzan adopted the western practices of drawing birds without a black outline and using graded color to make them look three-dimensional. However, he chose the traditional, far-eastern vertical format for most prints.†


a†† later Sōzan was replaced by Koson Ohara (Mirviss et al., 2004).

b†† This is a mythical scene because the Java sparrow was kept in a cage in Japan as a pet.



71 ††Java sparrow (Padda oryzivora) by Sōzan Itō, 170 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print




(6) Gyōsan


The first name of this mysterious artist appeared only on prints from a single seriesa of more than thirty prints published in the 1880s. Print 72 is one example. Each print included multiple species of birds and flowers associated with a particular season of the year. Spring is the seasonal theme of this print. Birds and flowers were drawn with sufficient accuracy to be recognizable but accuracy was sacrificed to heighten visual appeal. For example, the bullfinchís stomach is not yellow but grey and flowers of both the cherry (Prunus sp.) and rose (Rosa chinensis) are not so intensely pink. Color intensity was maximized using synthetic colorants imported from Europe. Gyōsan also followed the European practice of using graded color instead of applying color uniformly as had ukiyo-e artists.††


a†† The title of the series and names of the species depicted appear in the banner at the top of the print. The series title was Sōmoku Kachō Zue (i.e., Pictures of Plants, Flowers and Birds).



72†† Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) and Japanese bush-warbler (Cettia diphone) by Gyōsan, 255 mm x 375 mm, woodblock print




(7) Rinsai Shiba


In the early 1880s Rinsai designed several seriesa of prints similar to those of Gyōsan. Each series included more than twenty prints. Birds were paired with flowers and matched based on their seasonal symbolic association. Print 73 is a spring scene with cherry flowers (Prunus sp.), rose flowers (Rosa chinensis) and a copper pheasant. This pheasant occupies upland habitats in Japan including the mountains shown in the background. Rinsaiís prints included landscape elements such as mountains more often than Gyōsanís prints. Otherwise, their prints were very similar. Birds and flowers were drawn only semi-accurately and colored using synthetic pigments to maximize visual impact.†


a†† Prints in one series, entitled Kachō Kurabe (i.e., Comparison of Flowers and Birds), were vertically-oriented and sold individually. In another series, entitled Sōmoku Kachō Gafu (i.e., Picture Album of Plants, Flowers and Birds), prints were horizontally-oriented and sold together in a book.



73†† Copper pheasant (Syrmaticus soemmerringii) by Rinsai Shiba, 250 mm x 370 mm, woodblock print




(8) Bakufū Ohno


Bakufūís published about thirty bird prints in the mid-1900s. Picture composition was relatively simple, typically a bird and plant or a bird alone. To depict these objects Bakufū used one of two contrasting styles. In one style objects were drawn using mostly straight lines as in print 74. Little surface detail was shown and color was applied almost uniformly. As a result, objects looked wooden and passive. In the second style objects were drawn using mostly curved lines. More surface detail was shown and color was strongly graded all of which made objects look more life-like (e.g., print 50). In both styles objects were shown against a solid background, typically grey. However, some designs were issued using two different background colors, one dark and the other light.†††



74†† Daurian redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus) by Bakufū Ohno, 205 mm x 250 mm, woodblock print




(9) Shōtei Takahashi

Shōtei designed about thirty bird prints during the first half of the twentieth century. His prints were among the smallest produced by shin hanga artists. He also chose mostly small birds as his subjects, for example the Daurian redstart in print 75. Shōtei typically exaggerated the small size of the birds he drew. These redstarts are less than half their true sizea based on the size of the lily flowers in this picture. It was often a challenge to identify the birds in Shōteiís prints because they were so small. Here the Daurian redstartís unique color scheme simplified that task. The horizontal orientation of this print was unusual for shin hanga bird prints but was typical of Shōteiís artwork.†††

a†† The size of the Daurian redstart compared to that of plants is shown more accurately in print 74 above.††


75†† Daurian redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus) by Shōtei Takahashi, 150 mm x 100 mm, woodblock print





(10) Seitei Watanabe

During the late 1800s and early 1900s Seitei designed more than one hundred bird prints. About a quarter were sold individually and the others appeared in picture albumsa. Print 76 was sold individually. Most of these bird prints were oriented horizontally but they were larger than those made by Shōtei Takahashi (e.g., print 75). Like Shōtei, Seitei also favored small birds as subjects. Some of his choices were unique among shin hanga artists, including the Ryūkyū robin in print 76. Seitei was also unique in choosing to depict the same species from different angles. Here we have a back view. Seiteiís style was strongly influenced by western watercolor painting. He used strongly graded color to create the wash effect evident here on the birdís back and in the sky behind.

a†† Seitei Kachō Gafu (i.e., Picture Album of Flowers and Birds by Seitei) published in 1890-91 is perhaps the best known of his four albums.


76†† Ryūkyū robin (Erithacus komadori) by Seitei Watanabe, 285 mm x 215 mm, woodblock print




(11) Gekkō Ogata


Gekkō was both a painter and printmaker active in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His artwork included about twenty print birds, including print 77a. For these prints he used the almost-square format without picture borders. Each picture featured birds prominently positioned in a simplified landscape. The space around the edges of the picture was left empty to allow viewers to focus their attention on the pictureís bird subject. The subject was usually a large bird (e.g., mandarin duck) chosen from one the popular bird families (e.g., ducks and geese family). Bird shape was typically distorted to suggest movement. Here the male duck in the foreground had its neck extended and head tilted to get a better view of you, the viewer.†††


a†† See Turley (2013) for additional examples of Gekkōís bird prints.



77†† Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) by Gekkō Ogata, 235 mm x 230 mm, woodblock print




(12) Kōgyo Tsukioka


Kōgyo designed more than twenty bird prints in the early 1900sa. He was a student of Gekkō Ogata (above) so not surprisingly their bird prints are similar in some ways. For example, Kōgyo also used the almost-square format without bordersb and usually depicted a large bird subject from a popular bird family in a simplified landscape with empty space around the pictureís edges (print 78). Their pictures also differed consistently in some ways. Birds appeared in the background of Kōgyoís pictures instead of the foreground. Kōgyo also used coarser lines and patches of color to create the shapes of his birds. Consequently, they look more sketch-like than Gekkōís birds.††††


a†† For additional examples see Schaap and Rimer (2010).

b†† Borders were included when the original version was reprinted.



78†† Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) by Kōgyo Tsukioka, 285 mm x 275 mm, woodblock print




(13) Bihō Takahashi


Bihō was active during the early 1900s and made more than ten bird prints. Print 79 is one example. His prints all had the same almost-square format and were published both without borders and with borders. Like the red-crowned crane in this print, most other prints featured a large bird from one of the most popular bird families. The birds depicted were easy to identify because they were drawn accurately and they occupied a large portion of the picture area. Other objects included in the picture were typically few in number and small in size, such as the bamboo plant here. Bihō clearly wanted the viewer to focus on the pictureís bird subject. The attention-grabbing reddish sky in this picture was unusual, both for Bihōís pictures and for shin hanga bird pictures in general. Dull grey skies were more typical.



79†† Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Bihō Takahashi, 250 mm x 240 mm, woodblock print



(14) Chikuseki Yamamoto


Like Bihō Takahashi above, Chikuseki designed more than ten bird prints during the early 1900s. He and Bihō also used the same almost-square format for their prints. Both men depicted birds accurately and chose their bird subject from the most popular bird families but Chikuseki included many other objects in the picture as well. For example, Chikuseki filled print 80 with bamboo while Bihō only included a single, small bamboo plant in print 79. The inclusion of more objects drew attention away from the bird subject but it added interest and made the picture look more true-to-life. Pictures were even more interesting if they showed active birds (e.g., fighting sparrows) instead of passive birds (e.g., standing red-crowned cranes). For that reason this picture is one of Chikusekiís best designs.



80†† Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) by Chikuseki Yamamoto, 250 mm x 240 mm, woodblock print




(15) Kakō Tsuji


Kakō was a painter who also designed about a dozen bird prints during the early 1900sa. He used the recently introduced western, realistic painting style to depict traditional Japanese subjects such as the domestic fowl in print 81. He drew bird shapes accurately and used graded color to make the birds look three dimensional. The amount of detail he used to show the birdsí external features in this picture was exceptionalb. To make colorful birds stand out Kakō used a dull background in all his prints. In other prints he also included colorful flowers. All of his prints were oriented vertically, similar to his scroll paintings.†


a†† See Morioka and Berry (1999) for more of Kakōís artwork.

b†† Compare this picture with prints 52 and 64.



81†† Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Kakō Tsuji, 195 mm x 365 mm, woodblock print




(16) Kōitsu Tsuchiya


During the early 1900s Kōitsu designed a series of more than ten bird prints. Print 82 comes from that seriesa. All prints were vertically-oriented and featured a popular bird that had a symbolic association in Japan. The mandarin ducks in this snowy scene were associated with both marital fidelity and the winter season, which is the time of year when they formed large flocks and were most obvious. Kōitsu drew his birds with less accuracy than most other shin hanga artists. For example, the head of the male mandarin duck was too small for its body and it looked two dimensional because color was applied almost uniformly instead of strongly graded. To help balance picture composition Kōitsu included a prominent plant in most pictures.††††††††


a†† See Walker and Doi (2008) for pictures of all Kōitsuís prints.



82†† Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) by Kōitsu Tsuchiya, 195 mm x 385 mm, woodblock print




(17) Kōhō Shoda


Kōhō was most active during the early 1900s when he made more than ten bird prints. Most were pillar prints (e.g., print 83) which was an unusual format for a shin hanga bird print. Print composition was also unusual in two ways. First, birds were often not the most prominent object in the picture and second, prominent objects were often man-made. In print 83 a solitary crow was dwarfed by a large, snow-covered grave marker. In Japan the crow was associated with both winter and death which explained its pairing with snow and a grave marker. All species chosen for depiction by Kōhō had a symbolic association. The crowís solid black color and relatively large bill made it easy to identify even when drawn as just a small silhouette. It was more challenging to identify some of the birds appearing in his other prints due to their small size and lack of detail.†††



83†† Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) by Kōhō Shoda, 80 mm x 335 mm, woodblock print




(18) Gyōsui


Gyōsui is another mysterious shin hanga artist whose first name appeared on only a single set of about a dozen bird prints. Print 84 is one example. All had the same vertical format without a border. These prints are perhaps more correctly described as bird-and-flower prints because in each print colorful flowers accompanied the bird depicted. Flowers were usually matched with birds based on their shared seasonal association. Here that season was spring. Both the flowers and birds would be easily recognized because they were drawn very accurately. Some of the birds chosen for depiction were unusual for shin hanga prints. Instead of this olive-backed pipit, the skylark (Alauda arvensis) was usually paired with these chinese milk-vetch (Astragalus sinicus) flowers.††



84†† Olive-backed pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) by Gyōsui, 125 mm x 245 mm, woodblock print




(19) Hodō Nishimura


During the 1930s Hodō published a set of about ten bird prints. All had the vertical format, white border and solid black background shown in print 85. Light colors stood out particularly well against this black background (e.g., the yellow crest and back feathers of the golden pheasant). Large, colorful, exotic birds such as the golden pheasant were Hodōís favorite subjects. In each print he paired a colorful bird with equally prominent, colorful flowers. In some cases the flowers and birds shared the same seasonal association but in others they did not. The begonia flowers in this picture are a symbol of autumn while the pheasant is a symbol of spring. Like many other shin hanga artists Hodō adopted the western practice of drawing the external features of his bird subjects accurately. However, he was one of the few to also write their names in the picture border.



85†† Golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) by Hodō Nishimura, 275 mm x 410 mm, woodblock print




(20) Suikō Fukuda


Suikō was both a painter and printmaker. In the 1930s he published a series of prints whose theme was birds-and-flowers of the four seasons. Print 86 is one of the more than ten prints in this series. The brown-eared bulbul and snake gourd vine (Trichosanthes cucumeroides) depicted in this print are both symbols of autumn in Japan. Suikō gave the viewer a close up view of his bird and flower subjects with few or no other objects included in the picture. The flowers and fruits were typically drawn more accurately than birds. The bulbulís feathers are dull brown and grey with only specks of white instead of blue, black and white as shown here. Unlike Hodō Nishimura above, Suikō did not show his subjects against a dark background which made it difficult to see their shapes in some cases (e.g., bulbulís head and stomach).



86†† Brown-eared bulbul (Ixos amaurotis) by Suikō Fukuda, 275 mm x 405 mm, woodblock print






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