Magnolia, wisteria, winter flowering jasmine, Japanese quince – many of these species were introduced from Japan into European cultivation by explorers and plant hunters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now familiar and available to everyone, and growing in gardens by their thousands, it’s hard to imagine that these plants would once have been rarities.
In Kacho shashin zui, an intriguing collection of early 19th century Japanese woodcuts, the branches of these flowering shrubs and trees form settings for some spectacularly beautiful birds. According to the British Museum, Kacho shashin zui translates as ‘Lifelike depictions of flowers and birds’. However, a quick internet search suggests that today the Japanese word ‘shashin’ can also relate to film, indicating a snapshot or photograph.
The composition of these woodcuts does indeed give them a photographic quality – they possess the immediacy of a close up shot. Typically spanning two pages, birds are shown perching on leafy twigs and sprays of blossom the edges of which are cropped by a rectangular black border. This has the effect of drawing us into the image, focusing our attention on the birds. In a striking image of a jay hanging upside down in a gingko tree, only one of the leaves is shown in its entirety, the rest are cut through by the frame of the image.
The creator of these woodcuts, Kitao Shigemasa, is a precise observer of the forms of plants. The shape of leaves, textures of bark, angles of branches and the way flowers are held on the stems reveal very accurately the character of each plant.
Kitao Shigemasa (1739 – 1820) was a print maker based near modern-day Tokyo, who, in a long career, produced illustrations for more than 250 books. The three volumes of Kacho shashin zui referred to here are from the Smithsonian Institute’s collection – and one of their delights (as well as the stunning woodcuts within) is to open their plain covers and experience the digital books opening left to right – links are below.
There’s always something very special about blossom appearing on bare branches, and, as spring officially begins this week, it’s the perfect time to appreciate the emerging flowers of cherries and magnolias in our parks, streets and gardens.