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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Japanese Artist's Prints 1800's~"The Printmaker's Daughter" by Katherine Govier

Published by:  Harper Collins
Pages:  500
Genre:  Literature/Historical Fiction

In the evocative tale of 19th century Tokyo, The Printmaker's Daughter  delivers an enthralling tale of one of the world's great unknown artists: Oei, the mysterious daughter of master printmaker Hokusai, painter of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.  In a novel that will resonate with readers of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the sights and sensations of an exotic, bygone era form the richly captivating backdrop for an intimate, finely wrought story of daughterhood and duty, art and authorship, the immortality of creation and the anonymity of history.

"Full Moon on the Eight Views of Kanazawa"
by Hokusai
Art History :

HOKUSAI (1760-1849) is generally classed as a landscape artist, as his chief work was done in this field, though he drew almost everything that could be drawn.
He lived entirely for his work, and became the master-artist of Japan, dying at the age of eighty-nine, after a life of incessant work and almost continuous poverty, with the regret upon his lips that he had not been granted a longer spell of life to devote to his idol art.

No artist adopted so many artistic names with which to bewilder the collector of the present day as Hokusai.

As a pupil of Shunsho, at the age of nineteen, he used the name Shunro, but owing to a quarrel with his master, due, it is said, to his having taken lessons from a painter of the Kano school, he left Shunsho's studio in 1785, and started for himself as an independent artist.

Oei was actually his daughter's name and she is given credit for much of  "Hokusai" signed work.

The Dame's Review :

"The Printmaker's Daughter" is a book of considerable consternation.  While the overall story of artists Hokusai and his daughter, Oei, is complex and absorbing, it falls short somehow in this translation to paper.

As a subject of art history, theirs is a biographical tale that is fascinating.  Finding out that an example of Oei's work is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts especially captured my attention! ( I'm making tracks to see it when I go home to visit my children and grands.)  It's also interesting to note via Ms Govier's biographical notes at the end of the book, that an American collector purchased many of the prints and had them put in a museum; then, by his will decreed that they could never be loaned: "the collection had been in storage for 100 years."

In this book, what seems to have happened in Ms Govier's elaboration in novel form is that she took the bones of the historical knowledge of Hukosai and Oei, and tried to reconstruct a story around those details.  Often that's a good place to start; however, what resulted was a "term paperish" book that left out the essence of the people and the art you'd hope to find in a novel. 

What do I mean by this?  The characters are relayed to us as they are in their art history biographies, but there is no furtherance of that outline into a sense of fleshed out characters.  There are no real feelings engendered, no emotion truly felt and shown by way of the characterizations. None of the characters moved me at all. I felt a strict distance from them throughout this novel, despite the fact that there were several opportunities that could have been employed to enlist sympathy, empathy, and all sorts of identification in pain and love.  There is a definite void of emotion in these very flat characters.  It was as if I was getting a view of complete strangers and it stayed that way until the end with no insight into their real thoughts and feelings.  Even the lovely and abused courtesan that Hokusai loved was left a blank slate of her true thoughts and agonies. And, what's more, I missed finer details of the landscape, temple convent and buildings! Extremely frustrating.

Now, how can this be true in contrast?  I liked the story as it played out, and I believe that those who love novels of this oriental flavor will enjoy it for that reason.  I enjoyed the fantasy of how Oei may have looked and acted with the courtesans and her father, and how she may have become the great artist many think she actually was.  But I had to skim (which is antithetical to my reading spirit!) through long parts to get to that liking.  I had to give up a lot of what I wanted and expected.

The book was too long and left too much out. That's a strange one... In terms of the descriptions of making art; painting on silk and printmaking in particular, we are completely left in the dark.  I wanted to know the process, the artist's angst, the finding and connection with colors, the choices of engravers and printers and something about them, the type of paper used, etc.  I wanted to know their reactions when the engraving didn't work out!  There was so little about the artists' spirits and the compulsion to make art; what first inspired him and her.  So much substance could have been included, but wasn't.

I was disappointed with a novel that had such promise in facts available. This is a story that could have had such an impact today not only with regard to women in general, but also with regard to the recognition of women artists; and women artists in Japan, in particular. 

So much of the "red light district" of Koshiwara could have been described in exciting, lush detail; but wasn't.  I was frustrated with that and with what was lost in the opportunity to capture my imagination with stories and better descriptions of the courtesans.  They were shadow images...stick figures.

This book, then, is a mixed bag.  I couldn't stop reading it because I wanted to know about the artists and of their lives and culture.  And, yet, I felt disappointed that more wasn't made of Govier's author's license, her descriptive abilities and characterizations.  On one hand I felt as if I were reading a bad art history thesis; and on the other, a novel that left me wanting more.

I do thank Ms Govier for adding the biographical section at the end of her book.  Her notes on Hokusai being called the "Dickens of Japan," and that so many artists were inspired by his work; such as, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Toulousse-Lautrec, and Mary Cassat were of great interest and complemented her book.  For musicians, I think it was good of her to note that Debussy was inspired to write "La Mer" by one of Hokusai's prints.

I also loved finding out that Oei's disappearance and death...place and time are an unsolved mystery.  I thought Ms Govier's handling of that portion of her novel was excellent!

So, in conclusion, I leave the ultimate decision about this book to those of you, as I've said, who love novels of eastern cultures.  Japan is a wonderful place to read about, with a culture that invites love and curiosity.  You will find your itch for that scratched with "The Printmaker's Daughter."  As for the rest, it's for you to decide whether it matters or not to you!

The Dame must give it 3 disappointed stars for what could have been...


"Three Women Playing Musical Instruments"
By:  Oei Katsushika
Ink and Color on Silk Scroll


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