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Pair of white egrets.
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Pair of white egrets.
Work Type
colour woodcuts
colour woodcut
Overall: 267mm (width), 395mm (height)

Japanese Kachō -e 'bird-and-flower pictures' offered print lovers a charming antidote to the melodrama of kabuki-e. Early kachō -e drew on Chinese conventions and "aimed to capture the spirit of nature in connection with the seasons, poetic allusions, or religious values". Bird images often conveyed symbolic meanings - tsuru, the crane, for example, was associated with longevity. By the 20th century, the simpler pleasures of enjoying intimate views of nature had somewhat supplanted these metaphoric associations.

Ohara Shō son (1877-1945), the most celebrated of shin-hanga ('new print') kachō -e artists, is reputed to have designed over 450 bird compositions. Under the name Koson, he had trained in Nihonga Japanese-style painting, specialising in the naturalistic modes of the Maruyama-Shijō school. He found early employment designing senso-e triptychs of the Russo-Japanese War. Subsequently, however, he specialised in intimate shin-hanga views of birds in their natural settings.

Delicate watercolour washes clearly distinguish Shō son's naturalist style from idioms of contemporary kachō -e designers, and account for his popularity in Japan and in the West. That delicacy challenged the skills of his craftsmen, and Shō son found favour with the best. Works published by Akiyama Buemon (Kokkeidō ) and Matsuki Heikichi (Daikokuya) and signed Koson were "principally destined for the foreign market". He changed his name to Shō son from 1912, and used it from around 1923 in his work with the pre-eminent shin-hanga publisher Watanabe Shō zaburō . All five bird prints currently in Te Papa's collection are signed and sealed Shō son, and also bear Watanabe's small circular seal.

Shō son's intimate view of two egrets with a background of reeds and a crescent moon clearly demonstrates the legacy of his watercolour studies. This is evident in the delicate bokashi gradation from darker blue in the upper composition, fading into a lighter twilight blue below, and in the soft, seamless, brownish-grey and blue transition from the reeds into the water.

Conventional brushwork of watercolour and sumi-e ink painting also inform Shō son's rhythmic articulation of the swaying curves of delicate linear stems and crisp, decisive brushstrokes of the leaves in the layers of reeds, and the rhythmic movements of ripples in the water. Besides its muted palette, this composition also reflects the understated compositional devices that Shō son favoured of establishing the principal subjects close to the viewer in a foreground plane, a shallow middle-ground setting closely behind them, and a background view of the nocturnal sky. This delightful work was one of 21 shown in the first shin-hanga exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in the USA in 1930.


David Bell, 'A new vision: modern Japanese prints from the Heriot collection', Tuhinga, 31 (2020), forthcoming.

A. Newland, J. Perrée and R. Schaap, Cows, cranes & camellias: the natural world of Ohara Koson 1877-1945 (Leiden, 2001).

Dr Mark Stocker Curator, Historical International Art May 2019

Collection: Art
Purchased 2016
Accession Number
Showa;Birds;Reeds (Plants);Moonlight
Image and original data provided by Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa
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