Normally I wouldn’t write about an exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers. Not because I don’t like them, but because they fail the test of this blog of having some sort of Japanese connection. But guess what? This year, for their annual exhibition at the Bankside Gallery, they’ve joined forces with the Kyoto Print Exhibition Executive Committee and included ten Japanese artists in their show. I found the contrast between the British and Japanese artists fascinating.
Woodblock prints are produced by cutting the design into a wooden block. Ink is then rolled onto the block and used to produce the print, either by a printing press or by hand. The most famous Japanese prints are the ukiyo-e or floating world prints, whose bright colours all had to be printed in separate stages.
In wood engraving the artist cuts the design into the hard grain end of the wood rather than using the plank side, which is harder to do and pretty much means that they work in black and white.
I was really aware of this difference at the exhibition, where many of the Japanese artists produced fluid works in colour while the British artists produced finely etched monochrome prints.
Interestingly, the Japanese artists were much more likely to produce abstracts while the British artists were almost 100% representational, with a strong emphasis on landscape and animals.
The British works were also smaller – partly I suppose because of the difficulty of getting suitable wood in large enough pieces. It meant you had to get quite close up and peer at them to appreciate them.
You can get an idea of the difference from these two general views. This is the Japanese section:
And this is the British section with some tiny prints set in large frames.
What else was different? Well, I thought the British artists’ work had a more academic feel, as you can perhaps see from the following two pictures. The first is by a Japanese artist (the picture at the top of this post is a detail from it), the second by a British artist.
Though British artists could be quite humorous too, as in this print, titled In Safe Hands.
Here’s what I mean about abstract versus representational in a pair of colour prints:
I’ll end with my two favourites – an exploded overhead view of New York and a lively and dramatic owl.
The Society of Wood Engravers was founded in 1920 by a group of artists including Eric Gill and Lucien Pissarro. Their exhibition at the Bankside Gallery (next to the Tate Modern) continues until 23 February. The works are for sale, many at prices under £100. The gallery is open daily 11 am to 6 pm.