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Birds B

Sakamoto Hanjirō (1882-1969)

 Japanese Color Woodblock Print

Birds - B

by Shima Tamami, 1961

Sakamoto Hanjirō (1882-1969)

IHL Cat. #1336f

About This Print

One of ten prints included in James Michener's seminal book and portfolio of prints The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation published in 1962.  The print is tipped into the book opposite p. 36. 

The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation by James A. Michener

The Comments of James Michener:

From the moment the prints in this contest were assembled, both critics and general public nominated one as pre-eminent. This lyric, exciting work by Shima Tamami has an immediate appeal which does not diminish with familiarity. In color it is quiet and satisfying, each of its individual tones blending with the whole and each impressing the viewer as being appropriate to the subject. The use of wood in graphic art is nowhere in this series better exemplified than here, while the carved line is both artistically pleasing and technically expert.

But what gives the print its inviting charm is the subject matter, a handsome, stylized scene from nature in which the three birds are splendidly varied in their attitudes, yet artfully disposed to produce a well-designed print. The brief suggestion of a woodland that runs through the middle background of the print is cleverly done, while the contrast between sky and water is beautifully achieved.

This is a most adroit print, and I doubt if a better could have been found to illustrate in one brief example why it is that the modern Japanese print has been found so appealing by so many connoisseurs. The simplification attained in this work is admirable, but the depth of joy that shows through that simplification is one of the finest things that art can accomplish. I cannot imagine anyone's tiring of this rhythmic, plastic work, and if the reader should want a fine example of what the print form can achieve, this print would be the answer, for it is an almost perfect work.

There are many aspects of this print that will repay close study, but I should like to deal with only three: design, texture, and use of wood.

Start with the outermost extremities of the bills of the three birds, and see how, beginning with the one farthest away, the tips stand each at a similar distance from the top and the right-hand side of the paper's edge, a distance which is repeated with the bottom and tail of the foremost bird. These points, taken in sequence from upper left, across the top of the print and down the foremost bird's extended neck and around to his tail, form the outside rhythmic pattern inside which the body of the print is confined. The three-quarter circle thus subtended is broken twice, once by the arbitrary intrusion of the band of woodland scene that cuts the right margin just below the middle, and again by the tail of the middle bird. When I first saw this print I liked the use of the bird's tail to break the rhythm very much, but I thought the use of the light band somewhat arbitrary; now that I know the print more intimately, I see that Shima was correct and that without that bold cutting of the pattern, the circle would look rather obvious.

To continue the discussion of the design, the placement of the three birds within the circle seems inspired. What differentiation the artist achieves, what variation in weight and balance, what a superb utilization of line to create form and implied movement! The three postures of the bills are a little obvious, I am afraid, but the extremely bold invention of the forefront bird in contorted sweep is something that most of us would have been quite incapable of. If the three bills are to be questioned as obvious, certainly that wild bird in front must be warmly commended as excellent artistic invention.

The manner in which the dark lower portion of the rear bird, as it intersects the band of forest, assumes the focal point of interest is likewise admirable; a lesser artist would have had his center of interest much higher and would thus have lost the relationship between the rear bird and the dominant forefront one. And the manner in which the middle bird ties the whole interior design together is commendable. The rhythm obtained by these various devices is positively insidious, for the beholder's eye keeps sweeping round and round this picture, like a bird in flight.

One of the most attractive elements in this print is the varied texture, divided into five contrasting types. There is the soft fleecy effect of the sky, achieved by utilizing one distinct kind of wood creatively. There is the rippling texture of the water, achieved by using a different wood quite differently. There is the neutral texture of the band of forest which heightens the contrast between sky and water. There is the glossy texture of the solid black portions of the birds. And there is the very effective mottled texture on the backs of the first and second birds, obtained from a paper block printed in black over blue.

One would be most naive to assume that these contrasts were accidentally obtained. That they were so adroitly managed is a tribute to the artist, but also a reminder of how important texture has become in many modern Japanese prints. In this print the textures are tactile. One can feel with his forefinger the different effects Shima is after. In Kinoshita's "Faces" the texture is implied. In the print before that, Watanabe's mysterious figure of a man, the texture derives from the rough paper and the even rougher application of colors. Three other artists not represented in this book who specialize in superb texturing of their prints are Mizufune, Nakayama, and Ono. Sometimes even to see the contrasts they obtain is pleasing, regardless of the subject matter of the print.

But few prints, even those by artists who have stressed this aspect of art, have equaled Shima's use of texture as evidenced in this print, and much of the attractive quality which marks this work stems from its real and implied textures. Graphic art which ignores this problem today foregoes one of its richest components.

The most distinctive aspect of this print, however, is its use of wood. On pieces of plywood, which is now customarily used by Japanese artists since the original cherrywood block has proven too small and too hard for the effects the modern artists desire, Shima found, for the upper half of her background, a widely spaced, freely moving grain that resembled clouds and, for the lower, a rippling and more tightly spaced grain to suggest water. With special pigments that emphasize the grain of the wood, she has obtained printing surfaces capable of recreating two quite distinct effects. The band of different texture thrown across the meeting line of the two woods was brilliantly conceived and eliminates what might otherwise have been a rather transparent device: the harsh juxtaposition of the sky and water.

Shima's use of the broad-sweeping grain in the upper half of her print was by no means a modern invention. It was used with marvelous effect as early as 1750 by the classical artist Ishikawa Toyonobu, who did several prints with such backgrounds, and in 1765 by Suzuki Harunobu, who designed one of his masterpieces, a dancer with a monkey, with a similar marbled background. In later works, especially those by Katsukawa Shun'ei and Utagawa Toyokuni, some designs, while not actually emphasizing the exposed grain of the wood, did strive after somewhat similar effects by pressing the printing baren so harshly upon the wetted paper as to leave printing marks on the larger background areas. Such marks were held to be artistically desirable, in that they reminded the viewer that the print had sprung from a block of wood.

And here we are right back where we were in our reflections upon the preceding print, where Kinoshita Tomio carved an ordinary piece of wood so as to impart the sense of oak to his print. Here Shima Tamami has done just the opposite; she has searched for sheets of plywood which were so fortuitously constructed that they could hardly help but impart to their print a real sense of woodiness. Without in any way denying the beauty and power of Shima's results, of the two artistic techniques I still prefer Kinoshita's. I have already, in my remarks on his "Faces," given my rationale for this judgment. So in all fairness to Shima I should also admit to a subjective and quite irrelevant prejudice.

Japan has always had a group of craftsmen who search for tsuga (spruce-hemlock) wood of interesting texture. They char it in a fire, then rub away the burned pith, leaving myriad little black ridges against a handsome dark-brown underpith. From such wood these men carve the cleverest hoptoads, in which the alternate strata of black ridge and uncharred pith are made to look like a frog's skin with warts. Tourists seem to love these frogs, but I find the damned things repulsive, a reductio ad absurdum of the Japanese love of wood which is here so appealingly expressed by Shima.

Print Caption:

SHIMA TAMAMI: Born in Aomori Prefecture, August 11, 1937; now married to another print artist and living in Tokyo. Graduated from TokyoWomen's University of Arts.

THE PRINT: Artist's title: "Tori B" (Birds B). Six plywood blocks (lauan, basswood, and sen or Kalopanax ricinifolius M.) and, for the black striations on the backs of two of the birds, one paper block made by untwisting paper string and pasting the crepe-textured paper on a board. Self printed on Takasago torinoko paper in three colors of special oil pigments from which the oil was removed in order to bring out strongly the grain of the wood. About two impressions for the light areas and about five for the dark. Several of the blocks had to be made anew during the course of the printing, resulting in different grain patterns between one print and another.

THE ARTIST'S COMMENT: "I have worked with the bird motif ever since 1 first took up prints. In the composition of the present print I treated the birds as still-life objects. I am not completely satisfied with this print because of its small size."

Print Details
 IHL Catalog  #1336c
 Title  Bird - B [as titled on bottom margin left] (Tori B, 鳥B)
 Shima Tamami (1937-1999)
 Tamami Shima [in graphite]
 Seal of Artist
 not sealed
 Date  1959 [as dated on print]
 Edition  first 463/610
 Printer  the artist
 Impression  excellent
 Colors  excellent
 Condition  excellent - tipped into mat in the book The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, opposite p. 36
 Genre  sosaku hanga (creative print)
 H x W Paper  16 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. (41.3 x 29.8 cm)
 H x W Image  15 x 10 1/2 in. (38.1 x 26.7 cm)
 Collections This Print  The British Museum 1981,0205,0.1.6; Portland Art Museum 2004.39f; Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina 1981.2837.6; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 63.459
 Reference Literature  The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, James A. Michener, [with Ten Original Prints by Hiratsuka Un'Ichi, Maekawa Sempan, Mori Yoshitoshi, Watanabe Sadao, Kinoshita Tomio, Shima Tamami, Azechi Umetaro, Iwami Reika, Yoshida Masaji, Maki Haku], Rutland, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1962, p. 35-39.