NEW YORK – The Japanese began printing with wooden blocks sometime in the eighth century, but only in 1765 did they come up with a process that permitted printing in full color. That innovation, credited to Suzuki Harunobu, allowed for a golden age of ukiyo-e, the Japanese term for woodblock prints. The images caused a sensation all over the world, and influenced prominent artists such as Mary Cassatt, Vincent Van Gogh, and most notably, Claude Monet.
An undeniably compelling lot is Hell Courtesan, created in 1874 by Kawanabe Kyosai for his Drawings for Pleasure series. In that same year, Kyosai co-created Eshinbun Nipponchi, which has since been recognized as the earliest manga magazine. Though his personality was entirely different from that of Katsushika Hokusai, many regard him as a worthy successor to that artist. Kyosai was seemingly doomed to be different, however. One of his formative experiences came at the age of nine when he discovered a severed human head in a local river.
The peacefully slumbering red-cloaked figure showcased in Hell Courtesan dreams of skeletons – skeletons who emote, gesture, and exuberantly go about their business as if they were still sheathed in flesh. The Japanese woodblock print is estimated at $350-$400.
Stronger still is an original 1856 print by the legendary Utagawa Hiroshige. Tree Bridge Gokanosho, Higo Province comes from his series titled Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces, and is estimated at $6,000-$7,000. Masterfully composed, it seems perfectly balanced, with the figure clad in a red shirt drawing your eye to the center of the image like a bullseye on a target.
Rounding out the highlights is a late-career work by Toshi Yoshida, titled Garden with pond, pine tree and bamboo. Self-published in 1990, the strongly vertical large-format Japanese woodblock print approaches a traditional landscape scene in a modern manner. It carries an estimate of $1,500-$2,000.
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