Thursday, July 02, 2015

Paul Binnie’s New Tattoo Print

With rare exceptions, I usually don’t collect much post-WWII art.  While the shin hanga movement continued to exist after the war, few of the great print designers continued to be active and, of those that were, most of their best work was behind them.  A couple of decades later, the shin hanga movement was all but moribund, continuing to exist predominantly as a means to generate posthumous edition printings of old designs, or to reproduce ukiyo-e and shin hanga masterpieces on recarved blocks.  Moreover, as modern art principles took hold, the prints of sosaku hanga artists became less representational and more abstract, not to mention largely uninterested in depicting the types of subject matter that historically had been featured in ukiyo-e and shin hanga prints.  While contemporary non-representational art may have an appeal that spans cultures and borders, it largely leaves me cold.
Self-Portrait with Printer's Apron (1989)
Etching by Paul Binnie
Personal Collection

One major exception for me, however, is the work of the Scottish woodblock print artist Paul Binnie (1967- ), who currently lives in London, England.  I initially discovered Paul’s prints about 10 years ago and was blown away by several things.  First, there was the quality of the draftsmanship of Paul’s original preparatory drawings.  The woodblock print artists I’ve most admired have almost always been particularly talented in that area.   Second, I was impressed with how detailed and labor-intensive his prints were, usually requiring several dozen blocks and impressions, often lavishly printed with mica, metallic pigments, embossing, or other luxury printing effects, a result made all the more impressive by the fact that Paul does his own carving and printing.   His resulting prints of a quality that largely haven’t been seen since the Taisho and early Showa “golden age” of shin hanga prints issued by publishers such as Watanabe Shozaburo.  Finally, perhaps because Paul is himself a collector of ukiyo-e and shin hanga prints, he has great fondness for the types of subject matter of the prints produced under the traditional hanmoto system (as well as those produced by independent artists like Hiroshi Yoshida and Hashiguchi Goyo who hired their own carvers and printers to print their designs).  His work frequently pays homage to the great Japanese print artists of the past while nonetheless imbuing his own designs with a decidedly modern sensibility.  (It should be noted that Paul does, on occasion, carve freestyle on the woodblock and use a more limited color palette to produce prints more emblematic of the sosaku hanga movement.  He has even cut his blocks into segments with a jigsaw in order to produce prints in a manner somewhat analogous to the prints made by the Provincetown printmakers.)
Red Fuji - Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi (2002)

In 1993, Binnie traveled to Japan to learn how to make woodblock prints.  Through a friend he learned of the woodblock print studio operated by Toshi Yoshida, Hiroshi Yoshida’s son, in Tokyo.  Toshi Yoshida was too ill to take on new students and one of his recommendations was for Binnie to apprentice himself with Seki Kenji, the head printer for the publisher Doi and someone who maintained his own carving and printing workshop in Western Tokyo.  Binnie studied for a year and half with Seki Kenji and remained in Japan until late 1998 producing prints and oil paintings of Kabuki and Noh actors.

 Bandō Tamasaburō as the Spirit of the Heron
in the play "The Heron Maiden" (1997)

Today, Binnie’s woodblock print output exceeds 150 designs.  His subjects include bijin (beautiful women), male nudes, landscapes (including North American and European locales), clouds, flowers, animals, and Japanese mythological scenes.  In my opinion, some of his most outstanding prints involve sensitive portraits of contemporary kabuki actors.  Indeed he is virtually only the active woodblock print artist keeping that particular genre alive today.  Another area in which he excels are his tattoo prints, another classic ukiyo-e subject but one largely ignored by artists of the shin hanga movement.  I never really liked or appreciated tattoo prints until I discovered Paul’s work, which brings us to the subject of this post.
New York Night (2008)
Courtesy of Scholten Japanese Art

In 2004, Binnie began work on an intermittent series of prints called Edozumi Hyaku Shoku (A Hundred Shades of Ink of Edo).  Binnie had made tattoo prints prior to 2004 but, with the exception of color variants, the designs were independent of each other and generally involved stylized tattoos.   In this new series, the unifying theme would be tattoo designs (or composite tattoo designs) drawn from the print imagery of famous ukiyo-e artists.   Thus, one print featured a man with a tattoo made up entirely of cats in homage to the noted cat fancier Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who frequently depicted cats in his prints.  Another print in the series cleverly incorporated scenes from various Hokusai prints of famous Japanese waterfalls into a tattoo on a man in a shower.   Other tattoo designs in the series featured motifs from the prints of Yoshitoshi, Kunisada, Sharaku, Utamaro, Eizan, Haranobu, and Kiyonaga, with half of the models being female.  For collectors who may not be interested in a tattoo print, Binnie also produces at least one non-tattoo version in an entirely different color scheme.

 Kuniyoshi's Cats (2004)

White Cat (2004)

Paul Binnie has just released the tenth and final design in the series, a print called Hiroshige no Edo (Hiroshige’s Edo).  Like all the tattoo prints in the series, it is issued in an edition of 100 and with a background printed with baren sujizuri (circular baren printing).  This particular print design employs 46 colors and required 43 separate block impressions to make.  The majority of the imagery in this print comes from various designs in Ando Hiroshige’s famous print series Edo Meishō Hyakei (One Hundred Famous Views of Edo) (1856-1858).

Hiroshige no Edo (2015)

The tattoo on the woman’s back derives from two separate Hiroshige prints, Ōhashi Atake no Yūdachi (Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake) and Fukagawa Susaki Jūmantsubo.  An admixture of the red-pink of the woman’s cloth has been added to the background printing in a manner so as to suggest heavy rain like the Ōhashi print.  The design on the woman’s sheer cloth comes from a third print in the series, Kameido Umeyashiki (The Plum Garden at Kameido).  The carp seal under Binnie’s signature printed in 23 carat gold leaf is an allusion to the Boy’s Day banner prominently featured in Hiroshige’s Koinobori Suidobashi Surugadai print, while the Fuji scene at the bottom of the cartouche is from an undated tanzaku print of snow on Nihonbashi.   Hiroshige would later feature some of the same compositional elements in a similar print in the Edo Meishō Hyakei series called Nihonbashiyukibara (Nihonbashi, Clearing After Snow). (Click on the links above to see the corresponding Hiroshige print.)  Note how the woman's head and left elbow intentionally break the margin of the print.

Binnie’s print is part of a long tradition of Western artists appropriating Japanese print motifs into their art, a practice that has been going from almost the moment that Japan was opened up to the West.  Van Gogh, for example, painted two famous copies of Hiroshige’s  Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake and The Plum Garden at Kameido.

Bridge In The Rain (1887) by Vincent van Gogh

  Flowering Plum Orchard (1887) by Vincent van Gogh

In addition to Hiroshige no Edo, Paul has released two non-tattoo variants of that design.   The first, also in an edition of 100, is called Adesugata (Alluring Figure), part of another series called Azuma Nishiki Bijin Awase (A Collection of Eastern Brocade Beauties).  It is printed against a shaded lilac and mauve-pink ground.  The woman’s sheer cloth is the green of Japanese tea, embellished with flower buds in silver metallic pigment and 23 carat gold leaf.  In addition, there is an extra black lacquer-printed block in the hair, and blind embossing in the signature in the lower margin.  It employs 55 colors and required 51 separate block impressions. 

Adesugata (2015)

The second, Hantōmei (Translucent), is a smaller edition of 30, and is available exclusively from the Saru Gallery in Uden, The Netherlands.  It features a sensual burgundy red background  and also features Binnie’s signature printed in 23 carat gold leaf.  It employs 43 colors and  required 41 separate block impressions, including three for the red background alone.   (Several other designs in Binnie’s tattoo series also were produced without tattoos in a small edition utilizing a similar red ground background.  These designs tend to sell out rather quickly, after which the prices for Binnie’s sold-out prints tend to skyrocket on the secondary market.)

 Hantōmei (2014)
Courtesy of Saru Gallery

For a print such as Hiroshige no Edo, Paul would typically draw from life a series of drawings of the model (sans the imagined tattoo), eventually resulting in a final conte drawing in the size of the intended print.  Based on this drawing, an ink drawing (hanshita-e) would be prepared for purposes of cutting the block.  Traditionally, such a drawing would be destroyed in the course of carving, but Paul uses a photocopy of the drawing so that the original ink drawing can be preserved.  The tattoo is itself the subject of a separate ink drawing overlay.

Conte Drawing #1
Personal Collection

Conte Drawing #2
Courtesy of Scholten Japanese Art

Conte Drawing #3
Personal Collection

Hanshita-e (ink drawing)
Personal Collection

Hirogshige no Edo tattoo overlay
Personal Collection

A number of dealers around the world handle Paul Binnie’s prints, but two of the best are Eric van den Ingat the Saru Gallery in Uden, The Netherlands and Katherine Martin at the Scholten Gallery in New York City.  Each carries Hiroshige no Edo and their websites feature a large number of other Binnie designs in inventory, which I recommend you check out to get a sense of the variety in Paul’s work.  For further reading, I suggest Paul Binnie: A Dialogue with the Past - The First 100 Japanese Prints (Eric van den Ing, ed., Art Media Resources 2007), which features full page images of all of Paul’s commercially produced woodblock and stencil prints as of its publication date.  It is available at and other venues.

Cover depicts "Butterfly Bow" (2005)

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