Bairin, Senso-e of A Naval Battle at the Kaiyo Islands in Korea

Bairin (Active 1894) Senso-e of a Naval Battle at the Kaiyo Islands in Korea, (Kaiyo- to kaigun dai gekison) 1894. Oban Triptych.

After the Meiji revolution of 1868, the government (Meiji literally means ‘enlightened’) put every effort into modernisation, especially into the armed forces. Within a few short years, using thousands of French, British and American consultants, the new Japan had one of the most powerful and technologically advanced navies in the world. Japan’s conflict with China boiled over in Korea in 1894. A speedy mobilisation ensued and the Japanese sent 140,000 troops and its new navy. The Chinese were hopelessly outgunned and the Japanese were victorious at a cost of only 1400 casualties.

Despite modernisation, the only source of visual information of the war was woodblock prints and the nationalistic Japanese were avid collectors of this new genre of senso-e. After two centuries of refinement, woodblock technique was at a peak of sophistication and the artists were able to produce modern looking pieces - mainly in triptych form - to satisfy demand for news of victories from the front. Some of these are very fine indeed. The new style of watery, mist filled scenes using special effects to evoke the lingering smoke of battle, the novel depiction of modern high explosives and the refined use of western perspective in set piece panoramas was very successful.

Many late Edo artists produced senso-e including Chikanobu, Gekko and Kiyochika. There were also some hugely notable artists who were able to flower briefly during the conflict only to be lost when the dying art of woodblock printing was replaced by photography and lithography. One such artist is Bairin. Almost nothing is known about him: he was from Osaka and had studied under Yoshiume; he is known to have produced several war triptychs of which only one in the Philadelphia Museum is known.

This print, (unknown) adds a little more to our knowledge of the artist. It is a stunning piece of war reportage which in its style and graphic design ably predicts the great travel posters of Europe in the twenties and thirties. The use of the piercing spotlight (so familiar to later western design) is uniquely innovatory as is the prescient design details in the drawing of the clouds in the right hand panel that evoke the later art deco style. Overall this is a stunning piece of work, boldly playing as it does with scale, perspective and drawing style. Particularly fine is the moonlit depiction of the waves and the bobbing, helpless lifeboat in the foreground, contrasting so dramatically with the gaudy explosion that dominates the left hand sheet.

Like most senso-e, mounted on album backing. The print is full size and a fine impression with unfaded colour. Condition is very fine.

70cm x 35cm.