Takeuchi Seihô (竹内栖鳳 1864-1942) was born in Kyoto and trained with the leading Kyoto artist Kôno Bairei (1844-95). He went on to become one of the founders of the modern Kyoto school of painting, a teacher at the Kyoto City School of Fine Arts and Crafts, and a member of the Imperial Art Academy. He was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit in 1937, the year he also began the series Seihô ippin shû (see below). He was exceptionally skilled in nature studies or shaseiga (real life images: 写生画), in which he depicted the essence of a subject rather than merely a likeness.
Seihô ippin shû (Collection of Seihô's masterworks: 栖鳳逸品集), published 1937-42 under Seihô's direct supervision, is universally considered as one of the finest productions in twentieth-century Japanese art. Roger Keyes describes it as "the culminating work of traditional Japanese collaborative printmaking. The cutters and printers broke new ground, adopting new technologies like collotype, and devising new techniques to translate the subtle effects of Seihô's paintings into effective color woodcuts.* Jack Hiller described Seihô's portfolios of woodcuts and collotypes (for 7 prints in Set 1) as "one of the most magnificent printing achievements of the twentieth century."** Keyes also mentions that although the word ippin today means "masterworks," by the eighteenth century it also was taken to mean "painting of deep feeling that looked uncontrived and spontaneous and employed soft washes, delicate gradations of color, and virtuoso brushwork."
The rarity of surviving works from Seihô ippin shû has been well documented. The printer Shinmi Saburô's Tokyo studio was destroyed during the allied bombing raids in spring 1945, and all the blocks and (presumably) most of the printed examples were burned. The publisher Unsôdô no longer has any documentation about the publication of the series or additional impressions of prints from the portfolios.
The itachi (weasel: 鼬 or 鼬鼠) has a perennial place in Japanese folklore. Associated with supernatural occurrences, itachi were ghost-shapeshifters who could take the form of a monk or, after several hundred years, become deceitful transmuting badgers. The cry of the itachi was considered a harbinger of misfortune, and their malicious behavior included causing conflgrations. The itachi in Seihô's print seems harmless enough, but perhaps it is nevertheless up to no good.
The subtleties of the printer's art is showcased here. Note, for example, the soft russet-colored fur in contrast with the more densely printed berries. The composition is deceptively simple. A single leaf, in monochrome, lies below, harmonizing with the artist's signature and seal at the upper left. The pose of the weasel is well observed, with the sleek mammal perching on the branches, alert to any disturbance while rather enjoying itself. The delicacy in the range of values of the red and russet colorants is punctuated by a vibrant red-purple along the main diagonal. Without question, this is an impressive rendering of Seihô's watercolor technique through the medium of the woodcut.
Our rare woodcut impression is from Set 1, Envelope 8, and includes the presentation folder. Set 1 contained 31 prints in 10 envelopes, issued between April 1937 and December 1938. There was a second set of 35 prints in 9 envelopes issued between January 1940 and June 1942.
References: *Roger Keyes, Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan. New York: New York Public Library, 2006, p. 252; ** Jack Hiller, The Art of the Japanese Book. New York: Sotheby's Publications, 1987, p. 993.