Masami Teraoka and ukiyo-e printmaking

“Learning how to express yourself through artistic media is the way to learn how to see things clearly.”

– Masami Teraoka[1]

We never see our own position as well as when we step out of it. Migration can make us feel more connected to and understanding of our own culture than we ever did in our homelands,. while new surroundings force us to question the socialisation we took for granted as we observe differences in behaviours. Masami Teraoka (born Onomichi, Japan 1936) migrated from Japan to the United States in 1961. He had begun his career as an abstract artist, but from the 1970s onwards used his work as a means of reflecting on social norms and cultural anxieties. He is inspired by historical traditions, such as ukiyo-e prints, Pop Art and Christian iconography, and he uses their visual language, and its accompanying cultural capital, to explore contemporary socio-political issues, including AIDs, sexual abuse in the Catholic church and consumerism. Ukiyo-e, a style developed in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), was employed in his works from the 1970s to early 2000s as a way of expressing his experience as a Japanese migrant. Utilising the techniques and symbolism of ukiyo-e for his series Hawaii Snorkel created at Tyler Graphics Ltd. between 1991-93, Teraoka presents his experience of American society through a Japanese lens, while also reflecting on the cultural practices of both countries. 

THE TECHNIQUE

Ukiyo-e prints played a crucial role in circulating cultural information during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), first throughout the nation and from the early 19th century beyond Japan as trade with the outside world increased. They are customarily commissioned by a publisher (habnato) and executed by 3 artisans: the painter (eshi), the carver (horishi) and the printer (surishi). The painter creates a preparatory ink drawing which is transferred to thin paper (hanshita-e) and then pasted on a woodblock to create the keyblock (dai-ban[2] or omohan) by the carver[3]. The keyblock is a monochromatic outline of the composition usually printed in sumi, a black ink common in Japan and China. Once the proof of the keyblock is satisfactory the painter will hand-colour a print to create the colour instructions (irosashi), used by the carver to construct the accompanying colour blocks (iroita)[4]. Every block has carved registration marks (kentō) for the printer to place the paper between during printing[5]. The printer will proof the colouring of the work with the publisher and, depending on their status, the artist. Colourants of pigment or dyes are mixed in a ceramic bowl with water and sometimes binders, depending on the colourant chosen. First, the block is moistened to ensure the surface does not dry out while printing. Then the rice starch paste (himenori) and colourants are applied with a brush. The printing occurs in a series of repeated washes so that the ink evenly and thoroughly penetrates the paper. The sequence of printing begins with the keyblock followed by the colour blocks in the order of lightest to darkest, and smallest to largest. As the works are hand-printed with a barren rather than machine pressed the printer has exceptional control over the density and lustre of inks. Small increases in pressure and dampness of the block have a huge impact on for the final work. The difficulty of printing is increased by the addition of techniques such as gradation (bokashi), often used in depicting the sky. For this technique, colourant is partially added to the darkest area then diluted out gradually by water and transparent washes.[6]

Yasuyuki Shibata printing ‘Kunisada eclipsed’ from the ‘Hawaii snorkel’ series by Masami Teraoka, Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, 23 April 1993, photographs by Steven Sloman

Masami Teraoka’s Hawaii Snorkel series, produced with master printer Kenneth Tyler at Tyler Graphics, has the appearance of ukiyo-e print, but it is, in fact, a hybrid. When planning the Hawaii Snorkel series, Tyler suggested that they replace the keyblock with a copper etching plate, and Teraoka enthusiastically agreed. He drew the scene directly onto the copper plate using a mixture of etching and aquatint techniques. The writing, composed of kanji and hiragana characters, along with the seals and stamp icons were drawn on a transparent Mylar plastic sheet and transferred photographically to the plate. From here, Tyler Graphics printer Yasuyuki Shibata followed the traditional ukiyo-e method for woodblock printing, as both carver and printer. It was not only the directness of the media that excited Teraoka, but the cross-cultural origins of the techniques.[7] Woodblock is one of the oldest printing techniques, first appearing in China as early as the 8th century and spreading through Asia in the following centuries.[8] Prints from metal plates, such as engraving and etching, emerged from Europe much later. Etchings were first produced in 16th century Germany,[9] followed by aquatint in mid-17th century Amsterdam.[10] The near-parallel developments of intaglio printing in Europe and the ukiyo-e style in Japan was followed by a period of influence and exchange: ukiyo-e prints have an exceptionally well-documented influence on European artists and printmakers as early as the 18th century.[11] Teraoka’s Hawaii Snorkel series is both a product and recognition of the ongoing transference of cultural and technical knowledge between Asia, Europe and the United States.

THE IMAGERY

“I often depict Japanese with samurai-era hairstyles to symbolise their traditional attitudes. When such people come into contact with Westerners on the beach in Hawaii they face culture shock, unsure whether to be seduced or repelled by American excesses and freedom.”[12]

Utilising components of the ukiyo-e visual language to tell contemporary narratives, Teraoka composes dramatic visual feasts for his audiences to consume. Living in Hawaii, Teraoka witnessed the interactions of Japanese and American tourists at the beaches and observed a difference in behaviours towards sexuality in public. The Hawaii Snorkel series explores these clashing attitudes in ukiyo-e style to demonstrate the Japanese lens in an American context. While contemporary Japanese attitudes towards public sexuality may seem conservative in comparison to the United States, Teraoka also draws our attention to the sexually liberal history of images in ukiyo-e prints. He plays homage to the genres of ukiyo-e that present both underlying sensuality and overt sexuality. These include bijin-ga (beautiful women), abuna-e (dangerous/risky pictures), and shunga (spring pictures – spring is a euphemism for sex), which portray a varying level of sexual intent.

Utagawa Kunisada I, Bijin (Beautiful girl), 1830-40s, Gift of Professor and Mrs John Passmore in memory of Professor and Mrs Oe Seizo, 98.192

Ikeda Eisen, Pleasure boat [Yakatabune], c 1800-48, Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. AO CMG 1997, 97.34

Hokusai Katushika, Shunga from the album Overlapping skirts [Tsuma-gasane], c 1820, Gift of Verlie Just 1998, 98.75

The bijin-ga prints feature the ideals of both beauty and style of the time. Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was a leading creator of such prints[13], and a great influence of Teraoka. His work Bijin demonstrates his attention to fashion through intricate layers of fabric and the subtle sensuality of the genre, as both the folded openings of sleeves and parted drapery at the feet can be symbolic of the vulva[14]. The abuna-e prints are more suggestive. They may show people in some form of undress, often with clothing sliding off their shoulders, or feature couples in bedrooms and other secluded locations[15], as in Pleasure boat [Yakatabune] by Eisen Ikeda. The shunga prints are the most explicit genre and were believed to be used for such purposes as masturbation, education and stimulation of sexual desire between couples.[16] They feature figures amidst sexual acts with their exposed genitalia unrealistically angled towards the viewer for greater visibility. The images are regularly accompanied by an erotic narrative in the background, as shown in Shunga from the album Overlapping skirts [Tsuma-gasane] by Hokusai Katushika. This print also harnesses the power of symbolism in shunga using other allusions to their activities such as the yonic patterns on the hanging kimono and the wadded handkerchiefs in the lower left of the frame, referencing ejaculations. With such a rich history of sensuality in ukiyo-e prints it is no wonder that Teraoka chose to mine the genre to explore attitudes to sex.

His interest in this culture clash is demonstrated by the stories that play out in the Hawaii Snorkel series. The characters are emblematic of types of people and their associated attitudes. The American women are depicted with striking beauty and suggestive poses seen in the bijin-ga and abuna-e prints. They are the symbol of American sensuality that the Japanese men are shown to be shocked by and longing for.

Masami Teraoka, Catfish envy, 1993, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002, 2002.1.547

Catfish Envy depicts a middle-aged samurai astounded by a woman cuddling a catfish. The title implies his jealously of this open display of tenderness. Teraoka portrays the ease with which he sees Americans displaying physical affection, as well are the love they show towards their pets[17]. There is a tradition of catfish pictures (namazu-e) most prevalent after the earthquake in Edo (current day Tokyo) of 1855. In folklore the writhing namazu under Japan is believed to cause earthquakes, and the disruption of the catfish is provoked by governmental mismanagement and economic imbalance. The disaster is a chance to shake things up and restore harmony to society. The earthquake in Edo was associated with the increased economic unrest in the country and the threat of American ships appearing at the city in 1853-54. It signifies the downturn of the period and the end of the associated prosperity and peace[18]. The position of the catfish has since been extended to that of an inscrutable creature who can foresee great change or danger.[19] Perhaps this experience will seed a transformation in this samurai? Potentially a dangerous one…

Masami Teraoka, Kunisada eclipsed, 1993, Purchased 1993, 93.2042

In Kunisada eclipsed, the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) himself has come to Hawaii to holiday and paint the beautiful scenery. Instead, he is shocked by the sudden emergence of an American woman, a potentially more beautiful sight than the moon itself[20].

Kenneth Tyler holding a book of ukiyo-e prints related to the ‘Hawaii Snorkel’ series by Masami Teraoka at Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, 1991, photograph by Marabeth Cohen-Tyler

The portrait of Kunisada is based on a print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) titled Portrait of Ichiyôsai Toyokuni [Kunisada I], Age 78 (Nanajûhachi-ô Ichiyôsai Toyokuni shôzô) from the series Popular Matches for Thirty-six Selected Flowers (Tôsei mitate sanjûroku kasen) (1863) – as shown in a reference book possessed by Teraoka at the Tyler Graphics studio. Toyohara was a student of Kunisada and kept up his style of expressive characters and deep colours, a visible influence on Teraoka’s own practice. The captivating woman is identified in the text as “American woman: Marabeth Cohen”, who worked at Tyler Graphics from 1985 and modelled for Teraoka. She is a looming figure taking up around a third of the print amongst the rough seas and stormy weather which intensify the drama of her appearance. The sensuality of her voluptuous frame makes the shoulder revealed on Kunisada’s assistant seem rather tame.

Masami Teraoka, View from here to eternity, 1993, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund  2002, 2002.1.554

View From Here to Eternity alludes to the lust filled beach kiss scene from the film, From Here to Eternity (1953). In the original film the two lovers engage in what was a controversially public display of sexuality in America at the time. Teraoka reimagines the leading man as a samurai, who instead of passionately kissing the woman in the surf timidly admires her from a safe distance. The film is set in Hawaii during the Second World War with looming tensions in the Pacific hanging over the American soldiers and their lovers. The reference directs the audience to the tensions between Japan and America during this portion of the 20th century and the lasting effects of this shared history. In the top right corner, there is a surreal conversation between two catfish and a woman, which reads:

Catfish: Your head is big isn’t it?

Woman: Me?!

Catfish: It’s fine with me.[21]

The appearance of the catfish possibly alludes to the dangers and social upheaval of the 20th century, including the Japanese economic crisis of the 1990s. For as with the prints themselves, there is never a single layer to the cultural tensions.

Masami Teraoka, Longing Samurai, 1993, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund  2002, 2002.1.554

The young man in Longing Samurai excitedly looks towards the woman. He has a modern punk hairstyle, and thus is not fully representative of traditional values. “It seems he might be having a sexual fantasy but the reality is definitely beyond his grasp”[22]. Teraoka likens this experience to his own arrival in America when he felt a strong fascination alongside a deep frustration at not being able to understand the language and his surroundings. There is a subtle reference to shunga in the corner of the frame, with a tissue floating in the water – evidence of his sexual desire.

“One of the reasons I wanted to use ukiyo-e style for my own work was because I wanted to sort of introduce ukiyo-e style in contemporary context, so I felt like that could be my mission.”[23]

Ukiyo-e is dense in historical and stylistic meaning. These are just some of the ways in which Masami Teraoka has mined the print genre to convey narrative in his Hawaii Snorkel series. He has employed the technique of directing the audience masterfully, conveying intent and guiding the story with humour and substance. The use of cross-cultural techniques and referencing reveal his experience as a Japanese migrant to America struggling with competing norms. He has learnt how to express the clashing cultures as they merge internally within him, allowing us to see them clearly and experience this journey with him.

– Kira Godoroja-Prieckaerts, Assistant Curator, Kenneth Tyler Collection


[1] Asian Art Museum, Masami Teraoka: A Conversation with the Artist, filmed 1997, posted 17 July 2013,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1q607TGdl4, 0:18

[2] Bail Stewart, ‘Glossary’, A Guide to Japanese Prints and Their Subject Matter, Dover Publications, Inc.: New York, 1979, p xv

[3]  Shiho Sasaki, ‘Materials and Techniques’, in ed. Amy Reigle Newland The Hotei encyclopedia of Japanese woodblock prints, 2005, p 325

[4] Kumon Museum of Children‘s Ukiyo-e, ‘How an ukiyo-e is created’, https://www.kumon-ukiyoe.jp/en/flow.php

[5] Rebecca Salter, ‘The woodblock technique’, Japanese popular prints: from votive slips to playing cards, A & C Black Publicaters Limited: London, 2006,  p 20-21

[6] Shiho Sasaki, p 333, 339-341

[7] Kenneth E. Tyler, ‘Notes on Hawaii Snorkel Series’, Masami Teraoka: Hawaii Snorkel Series, Tyler Graphics Ltd.: Mount Kisco, 1993

[8]  ‘The Printed Image in China, 8th–21st Century’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, published 2012, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/printed-image-in-china

[9] Wendy Thompson, The Printed Image in the West: Etching’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, published October 2003, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/etch/hd_etch.htm

[10] Colta Ives, ‘The Printed Image in the West: Aquatint’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, published October 2003, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aqtn/hd_aqtn.htm

[11] Deborah Johnson, “Japanese Prints in Europe before 1840.” The Burlington Magazine 124, no. 951 (1982): 343–48

[12] Masami Teraoka with Lynda Hess, ‘Monitoring Our Times’, Paintings by Masami Teraoka, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery & Smithsonian Institution: Washington DC, 1996, p 50

[13] Sebastian Izzard, ‘The Bijin-ga of Utagawa Kunisada’, Impressions, No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp 1-5

[14] Timon Screech, ‘Symbols in Shunga’, Sex and the Floaring World: erotic images in Japan 1700-1820, Reaktion Books: London, 1999, pp 187-188

[15] Simon Henry, ‘Abuna-e’, in Ukiyo-e: fleeting images of ancient Japan, Simon Henry: Turramurra, 2000, p 21

[16] Paul Berrym ‘Rethinking “Shunga”: The Interpretation of Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period’, Archives of Asian Art, vol. 54, 2004, pp 9

[17] Masami Teraoka, ‘Notes on Hawaii Snorkel Series’, Masami Teraoka: Hawaii Snorkel Series, Tyler Graphics Ltd.: Mount Kisco, 1993

[18] Rebecca Salter, ‘Catfish print namazu-e’, in Japanese popular prints: from votive slips to playing cards, A & C Black Publicaters Limited: London, pp 108-113

[19] Asian Art Museum, 08:10

[20] Masami Teraoka, 1993

[21] Maria Bilske, ‘Masami Teraoka: View From Here to Eternity’, Tate, published April 2006, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/teraoka-view-from-here-to-eternity-p12384

[22] Masami Teraoka, 1993

[23] Asian Art Museum, 00:41

3 comments

    • tylercollection

      Thank you Mark. It is always nice to bring a works to life through research. We are very glad you enjoyed this piece.
      Kind regards,
      Kira (Assistant Curator, Kenneth Tyler Collection)

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