The earliest pictographs in China carved
on bones or tortoise shells were used by oracles. These images evolved into
the complex Chinese system of characters each representing words or concepts
totally unlike the lettered alphabet which we use in the West to form
sounds. The explosion of specialized characters helped lead to the
development of calligraphy and it is the art of calligraphy which concerns
us here. Writing is considered the greatest art among the Chinese. So, for
centuries wonderful examples were carved on stone monuments and steles
because of their greater permanence. The precision and flow of each
character was lovingly translated from the transience of the brush and ink
into stone which were meant to last for the ages.
That is how and why the art of stone
rubbings came about. Numerous museums today are filled with these rubbings
although they are seldom shown to anyone other than the most interested
scholars. For centuries rubbings spread calligraphic masterpieces far
from their original settings.
The Japanese adopted and adapted
many genres of Chinese art and scholarship. It was only a matter of time
before someone would try to repeat the art of stone rubbing visually into
woodblock print form. In the West there is a commonly known art phrase,
trompe l'oeil which means 'trick the eye'. The translation of this concept
into Japanese woodblocks is clearly expressed by ishizuri-e -
literally 'stone-printed picture(s)'. "There can be little doubt that the
method was adopted because of the Chinese associations, but the manner
in which the imitation 'stone-print' was created could not have been more
complicated or more demanding on the printer." (1) "This taku-hanga
(rubbing or intaglio woodblock print) method of reproduction reverses the
image and the background in the same manner as do traditional ink rubbings,
so that the subjects appear uniformly in white and the background is inked
with contrasting values of black or gray..." (2)
In the late 18th century Jakuchū
(1716-1800) created masterpieces of this art. While he wasn't the first he
raised this style to new and greater heights.
Perhaps as early as the 1840s Hiroshige
and his publishers began producing
ishizuri-e. In the 1850s he came out
with a whole series of harimaze much like the one by Gengyo featured
on this page where one prominent area was done in the stone-printed style.
Surely Gengyo knew these prints.
1. The Art of the Japanese Book, by
Jack Hillier, published by Sotheby's, vol. 1, 1987, p. 311.
2. The Paintings of Jakuchū, by
Money L. Hickman and Yasuhiro Satō, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
1989, p. 24