Toshidama Japanese Woodblock Prints

Osaka School

The Osaka School Artists

There is an enigma about these instantly recognisable woodblock prints that we term the Osaka School. Two or three things jump out of these prints which immediately differentiate them from their near neighbours in Edo. Firstly, their size - nearly all Osaka prints are printed onto chuban size paper: 19 x 25 cm. Secondly, almost all of these prints are outstanding in their quality - that is, the number of colours and the the lavish use of metallic pigment and the often superior paper. But what about the look of these mainly portrait prints?

Like the Renaissance artist, Giotto or the Spaniard, el Greco, there is a physionomy to these intimate and careful portraits that is immediately distinguishable - a roundness of features, a narrowness to the eyes and enigmatically, a longing in the expression which seems to add an extraordinary and touching intimacy to what are in the main Actor portraits.

Long overlooked and in the shadow of their better known and infinitely more prolific counterparts in Edo, Osaka artists have become, and are becoming above all, collectors' prints. Some are highly prized, and some artists are being recognised as the equal or superior of Edo artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kunisada. Comparison in art history is unhelpful and so it is better perhaps to look at the prints as they stand; extraordinary and very great portraits in a genre of great delicacy and confinement.

Osaka was an important port of over 400,000 inhabitants. Distinct, economically and culturally from Edo and Kyoto, it nevertheless enjoyed a vibrant culture and kabuki tradition. Out of this milieu emerged a man called Sadamasu, an artist, patron and wealthy individual. He developed, idiosyncratically, a style of full face woodblock portraits  on chuban sized paper. He in turn commissioned a young artist, Konishi Hirosada in 1841 to do a series of prints in the same manner and the Osaka style of woodblock print was formed. Hirosada had been a pupil of Kunisada in Edo and the twin influence of these two peers formed his distinct and exceptional style during the 1840’s. Despite periods of inactivity due to the Government restrictions of the Tempo Reforms, Hirosada was prolific over a relatively short period, his last known print being dated 1861.

Osaka prints were dominated by the chuban head and shoulders format, artists sometimes combining up to ten prints that could be read as a continuous ribbon of images or else seen as single sheets. There were also limited productions of triptychs of stage scenes although these are far less common. Edition sizes were much smaller than in Edo, making the quality of Osaka prints much more consistent. The print scene in Osaka was dominated by Hirosada and justifiably he remains the most well known, being a truly great portraitist even by international standards. There were other artists though of great stature, notably Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841 - 1899), Hasegawa Sadanobu I (1809 -1879) and Utagawa Kunihiro (active 1820 - 1843).

As previously noted, the exceptional quality of the prints, and the considered design work of the artists has led to renewed interest in Osaka artists of late. In some ways they conform more to western assumptions about fine art; many of the prints were designed and published privately and at a slower rate. For someone starting a collection, the smaller scope of the work and the increase in market interest makes Osaka prints a very attractive option. There is no doubt that prices for these works, especially Hirosada, will continue to grow in the coming years.

Read more about the Genius of Hirosada at our blog.