Representations of Herons in Ohara Shōson and Hashimoto Koei’s Japanese Woodblock Prints

What did herons symbolize in Japanese art?

In Japanese culture, herons are valued for being birds who can move across three elements, making them divine creatures. They are most prevalent in woodblock prints, drawing upon the “kacho-e” technique. “Kacho-e” are bird and flower pictures that draw upon the Chinese convention of “capturing the spirit of nature in connection with the seasons, poetic allusions, or religious values” (Bell). In relation to this, the most common Japanese poetic allusions include: changing seasons in the natural world, moments of feeling lost, sadness & despair, and love being lost/found. When looking at the collection of woodblock prints by Hashimoto Koei and Ohara Shōson, these motifs can be seen through their depiction of herons.  

Who were Ohara Shōson and Hashimoto Koei?

Born in 1877, Ohara Koson first began training in Nihonga Japanese-style painting under the Maruyama-Shijō school. His specialty at the time was in “shin-hanga”, which was a woodblock print movement that mixed Western and Japanese artistic elements. After the Russo-Japanese war, his kacho-e prints gained traction as his artistic techniques and affordable prices were popular in the West. In 1912, Ohara changed his last name to Shōson, and worked with publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō to create five bird prints that are currently in Te Papa’s collection. 

Although there is less known about Hashimoto Koei, he is reported to have been born in 1892 in Yawata, in the Gifu Prefecture. In 1908 he moved to Kyoto to study under Takeuchi Seiho, and married the daughter of Nanga painter Ikeda Keisen in 1936. Similarly to Ohara Shōson , Hashimoto Koei’s work includes watercolor gradients and kacho-e themes. Yet, Koei has a distinctly sharper embossing style, and rarely portrays herons in his prints.

Both artists are also shown to use similar printing techniques. This includes his application of “karazuri-e gauffrage” (to emboss in feathers), the “tsukekate” (to imply the gray silhouettes of bodies), and punching holes into the wood block (to create negative space – suggesting snow). The famous watercolor gradients seen in the backgrounds of both artists’ work are also the result of the synthesis of brush and print techniques. 

My Exhibition:

I chose to look at the representation of herons in Japanese woodblock prints because I became curious about the Japanese printing process and what they signify. Each of the prints chosen work with the utilization of negative space, specific color choice, and careful embossing to tell cultural narratives. Coloration is especially important in my exhibition as it plays a large role in setting the mood of the art piece, and thus the poetic allusion it is referring to. For instance, Koei’s “Snowy Herons” depicts multiple huddled herons with a grayscale background – alluding to the motif of persisting through changing seasons. In contrast, Shōson’s “Heron on a Rainy Night” illustrates a lone heron huddled in a pitch black background. Hence, it references the Japanese poetic allusion of feeling lost or in despair. With this in mind, my exhibit starts with more monotone colors (suggesting feelings of persisting through sadness or despair) graduating to vibrant blues and greens (suggesting feelings persisting for hope and success). The prints “Snowy Herons”, “Egrets in Rain”, and “Five White Egrets” were viewed and photographed in person at Shain Library, Connecticut College.

Title: Snowy Herons

Artist: Hashimoto Koei

Date: 1899

Medium: Ink on paper

Work type: color woodcut

Measurements: 37 x 26 cm

Repository: Wetmore Print Collection, Art History Dept, Cummings Arts Center, Connecticut College, New London

Description: The print consists of three herons huddled together in a body of water. The heron on the far left is seen to be facing the other two, with its neck outstretched. The primary use of black and gray, as well as the herons’ huddled bodies imply that the environment is cold and desolate. The herons are shown to be the main subjects of the piece due to the contrast of their large white bodies and bright yellow beaks. This is further enhanced by the background’s change in grayscale, as the values become brighter when closer to the birds. A sense of perspective is seen in the way the herons’ legs trail off into the water, and feathers are enhanced by methodical indentations. Although this piece is mainly done in monochromatic colors, the gradient wash makes the piece brighter- and alleviates the heaviness of the print. Due to the body language of the herons and undetermined background, this print could be said to allude to the poetic allusion of transitioning through the seasons. In other words, there is a display of persistence through unknown change with others.

Ohara Koson: Egret on Rainy Night - Artelino

Title: Egret on Rainy Night

Date: 1928

Artist: Ohara Koson

Medium: Ink on paper

Work type: color woodcut

Measurements: 26 x 38.5 cm

Repository: Japanese Art Open Database; Resig, John.

Description: Similarly to Hashimoto Koei’s “Snowy Herons”, “Egret on Rainy Night” depicts a lone heron in a dark, cold, and desolate environment. This is shown by the heron’s huddled posture and the dark black background. The background of the print is contrasted by harsh slashes of negative space- symbolizing rain. To utilize this dark background, the main figure is highlighted by its bright white body. As opposed to his previous works, this piece does not contain any gradients or watercolor attributes. Instead, it focuses on the details of the heron’s feathers (made by methodical embossing), beak, and feet. It is also worth noting that the usual yellow coloration of the beak and feet are substituted for a blue gray- further conveying a lonely tone to the piece. With this in mind, it can be understood that this alludes to the common literary theme of sadness and despair in Japanese work.

Title: Five White Egrets

Artist: Ohara Shōson 

Date: 1927

Medium: Ink on paper

Work type: color woodcut

Measurements: 36 x 24 cm

Repository: Wetmore Print Collection, Art History Dept, Cummings Arts Center, Connecticut College, New London

Description: Five egrets are packed and nestled together in a lake, while snow gently covers them. This sense of environment is achieved using the gradient of Prussian blue, and their legs trail off into the water- suggesting the presence of icy water. The idea of snow is illustrated by the bright white spots that cover the piece, that is sharply contrasted by the cloudy sky (depicting using a gray wash gradient). The egrets’ feathers are also finely creased, suggesting that they are compacting/bracing themselves before the snow. The artist also made sure to use yellows and a slight gray wash on their eyes, beaks, and their outlines, to emphasize the individualities of the egrets. The use of deep blacks, but soft blues and negative space convey a serious, but hopeful tone to the piece. With this, it can be connected to the poetic allusion of sadness and/or transition through the seasons. This can be seen as although the piece is mostly dark, and the herons are huddled together, some of them are poking their necks out to the sky. The illustration of this body language hints of persevering through sadness with loved ones.

Title: Five Egrets descending in snow

Date: 1920

Artist: Ohara Koson

Medium: ink and color on paper

Work type: color woodcut

Measurements: 38.2 x 17.2 cm

Repository: Museum of Fine Arts

Description: Following the use of herons to depict withstanding environmental hardships, this print illustrates five herons descending in snow together. The environment is alluded to with the use of gradients, starting with a gray wash down to a Prussian blue. It is further littered with spots of negative space, with a small bush wilting in the bottom left corner- portraying winter. Ohara Koson also works with a sense of perspective, as the herons seem to fly closer due to them increasing in size, as they come closer to the bottom of the print. In addition to size, the details of the herons seem to become more complex as well. This is shown with the faint lines of embossed feathers turning into complex curvatures as the herons come closer. The use of color on the herons is also used to create perspective, as the yellows of the beaks and claws become increasingly more prevalent. The use of colors and perspective in this piece also allude to the transition of the seasons, though through a different sense. The increase in scale in a bright, but harsh environment conveys a sense of coming close to reaching one’s goals after persevering with a group. Thus, the message becomes more positive in tone.

Title: Egrets in Rain

Artist: Ohara Shōson

Date: 1926

Medium: Ink on paper

Work type: color woodcut

Measurements: 37 x 24 cm

Repository : Wetmore Print Collection, Art History Dept, Cummings Arts Center, Connecticut College, New London

Description: This depicts 2 egrets flying through the rain (which is depicted by the subtle transition of green to gray in the background (as well as the direction the ink was pressed). This sense of background is also achieved due to the branches of a willow tree swaying to the right (indicating movement). The embossing on the birds’ feathers seem to be more heavily done, creating a strong contrast to the bright whites of their bodies. This may have been done to create more of an emphasis on their wings, to illustrate the severity of the storm. Colors are used purposefully in this piece, as the yellows and pinks easily identify the egrets’ claws, eyes, beaks, and mouth. This coloration, unlike the previous prints, indicates a brighter mood revolving around the allusion to the transition of seasons. In doing so, it makes a broader statement of being unafraid of change, and persevering through it with loved ones.

Bibliography:

Bell, David. “A New Vision: Modern Japanese Prints from the Heriot Collection.” Essay. In Tuhinga Records of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, edited by Mark Stocker, 71–91. Wellington, New Zealand: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2020. file:///C:/Users/RPanda2001/Downloads/MA_DOC001873_TePapa_A-new-vision-modern-Japanese_full.pdf.

“Egrets In Rain .” The Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints, Lavenberg Collection, http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/ohara-koson-1877—1945-/egrets-in-rain.

Egret on Rainy Night: Shoson Ohara: Egret on Rainy Night- Heron – Japanese Art Open Database.” Ukiyo-e Search, Dec. 2012, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/jaodb/Shoson_Ohara-No_Series-Egret_on_Rainy_Night_Heron-00037433-050321-F06.

Five Egrets Descending in Snow: Five Egrets Descending in Snow – Works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, https://collections.mfa.org/objects/255504. 

HASHIMOTO, Koei, Japanese, b.1899. Snowy Herons. p. 1, https://jstor.org/stable/community.9900284. Wetmore Print Collection, Art History Dept, Cummings Arts Center, Connecticut College, New London;Donated by Prof. Caroline Black, Botany Dept, Connecticut College.

Nix, Ruth. “Topics of Haiku & Tanka Poems” penandthepad.com, https://penandthepad.com/topics-haiku-tanka-poems-1362.html. 4 December 2021.

SHOSON, Japanese. Untitled, five white egrets. c.1927. Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/CONNASIAN_106310616930

Sowerby, Sammi. “From Japan: Shirasagi-No Mai (White Heron Dance) – a Graphic Impression.” The Dance Enthusiast, The Dance Enthusiast, 4 Dec. 2021, https://www.dance-enthusiast.com/features/impressions-reviews/view/White-Heron-Dance. 

Author: Rachel Park

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