How to Look at Japanese Art Series - A Crab Woodblock Print
How to better appreciate Japanese art? In particular, lets explore the meaning of the crab in this 18th C. Japanese print.
These kind of fine quality Japanese prints, known as surimono, were often made for festive occasions such as the New Year. They were usually commissioned by a poet or a poetry group and privately published. Although their subject matter may seem common, these prints are full of hidden meaning and subtle imaginative ideas, woven between the poem and image.
Nature and its patterns
When looking at the arts of Japan, flora and fauna were always integrated as part of its visual world. Their very essence quality iconography was used in conjunction with giving expression to notions, thoughts, and beliefs of a culture dependant on its visual language as communication connecting network.
The composition representation of Japanese painted art, like in its poetry, seems to always be located in a particular span of time. Artists use of coded imagery as a specific set of vocabulary facilitated the expression of the transitory state of time.
Observation of natural rhythms and planetary patterns is a key feature in the Japanese relation to the natural world and its phenomena and how it evolved in the painted art. In particular, the way animal behaviour reacts in specific time and responding to the changing nature of time. Be it ebb and flow, change of temperature and humidity, light and dark, as well as the magnitude of the changing seasons. This aspect of time flow, reveals to us the very essence character of the art work.
A particular interesting aspect of behaviour in the natural world is that of heralding time of phenomena not yet occurred. The crab (kani 蟹) comes out at the ebb of the tide, especially when the morning sun rise or the evening sun set. It waits on the water edge to feed, enjoying the early or late soft rays of light.
The etymology of its name kan-i means both ‘court rank’ as well as ’bravery’, which indeed he is, in heralding dawn and dusk and in reacting with the water cycle and the ebb of tide. The crab knows to follow the ocean’s rhythm and the day and night cycle.
The art of surimono
This woodblock print, known as surimono - to mean ‘printed things’, is a limited edition and privately commissioned print, made for special occasions and times of the year. In particular surimono were designed as original gift cards for the New Year.
The art of surimono was developed during the 18th century by top artists, usually commissioned by a poet or a poetry group. It was designed with subtle details, high quality paper and pigments, and refined technique of printing.
Artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1865) was one of the most prolific woodblock print artist of the 19th C., with over 20,000 designs he has created during his lifetime. In this fine print by him, a giant crab is depicted from above, crossing the soft sand unto the water. Two poems are placed at the top part, with Kunisada beautiful designed round, red seal on the bottom right.
The two poems are placed carefully above the crab, as if coming out of the blue water. They are so well engraved that one may confuse them with calligraphy brush strokes. The first poem by Bunsō Takemasa on the right reads:
'The warbler sings
to the moon and stars
at Susaki Bay
as the sun rises auspiciously
at the dawn of spring.'
The second poem is by Kubo Yasujūrō (1780-1837) , one of the many poets who came from samurai family and of the first to make a living out of the kyōka poetry, by holding competition and compiling anthologies of amateur kyōka poetry:
in a sea of mist
the giant crab
crawls ever more slowly
as the day goes by.'
Both poems indicate the season and hour, describing Susaki Bay on the outskirts of Edo, which was a traditional place for gathering shells and seeing the first sunrise of the year over the sea. Time in poetry and painting was represented often with relation to a specific place, in defining not only the moment but also the emotional mood caused by that place and hour.
And so, a crab is not just a crab, it is part of the great clock of the natural world and was carefully chosen to be depicted here in this print. Although only one single crab is painted, its image alongside the calligraphic poetry, reveal to us, if only in our imagination, a whole landscape of the disappearing night time with its moon and stars, and the coming of the first New Year sunrise by the silver blue seashore.
More on Japanese art history and painting crabs -
For a selection of essays relating to Japanese art history and aesthetics as well as ink painting practice recommended resources and artist contemplation - You are invited to subscribe to ArtBrush library - HERE
Learn how to paint crabs (and shrimps) with Japanese ink and brush in this easy step-by-step tutorial - HERE