Japanese Bird and Flower Prints
The kacho-e, or the bird and flower genre of Japanese woodblock prints, follows on from a long tradition in Chinese painting. In China, birds and flowers ranked along with landscapes and human figures as one of the main concerns of artists through the centuries. Considering the great favor in which Chinese culture was viewed in Japan, it is not surprising that Japanese painters also turned their attention so frequently to the depiction of this same subject matter. Numerous studies of this type are found among the works of the Sesshu School in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the artists of the Kano School, who upheld an extraordinary family tradition of "Chinese" painting from the fifteenth century right through to the nineteenth century.
While Chinese printmaking also influenced the technical development of this art-form in Japan, Chinese prints of birds and flowers (such as the mid-seventeenth century print to the immediate right of this label) served a fundamentally different purpose from that of their later Japanese counterparts. The Chinese examples were used in artistic manuals such as the Mustard Seed Garden as models for aspiring painters to emulate. In Japan, however, kacho-e prints were produced and enjoyed for their own sake. Though Chinese influence was present from the very start in the art of the Japanese printmakers, the connection received a further boost when later masters, including Hokusai (1760-1849), studied the printing of Ming China (1368-1644) in detail. In fact, it was Hokusai who is generally credited with raising the bird and flower print to a point where it became a dominant genre in teh art of the Japanese ukiyo-e print.
The Art Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design is fortunate to have an extremely rich collection of kacho-e genre prints, almost 700 of them having been donated to the museum in 1934 by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The selection of prints on display in this exhibition includes works by many of the greatest Japanese printmakers, starting with Masanobu (ca. 1686-1764) from the so-called "Primitive Period" before the full-color print was developed around 1741. Other artists represented are the former samurai Eishi (1756-1829); Kyosai (1831-1889), whose ominous black ravens seem so appropriate for this son of a samurai; Hiroshige (1797-1858) and his master Toyohiro (1773-1828); Hokusai and his pupil Hokkei (1780-1850); Koryusai (fl. 1760-80), who was especially famous for this tall and narrow pillar prints (hashira-e) intended for the square pillars of Japanese houses; and the famous master Utamaro (1750-1806). All these prints come from the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), when the shogun moved his capital to Edo, the modern-day Tokyo.