Ohara Shôson (小原祥邨), whose surname and given name were Ohara Matao, was one of the principal shin hanga designers of flower and bird prints (kachô-e), a traditional subject for Japanese painters and printmakers. He studied with the Shijô-style painter Suzuki Kason (1860-1919) and used the name Koson (古邨) before 1911. During this period he worked with the publishers Kokkeidô (Akiyama Buemon) and Daikokuya (Matsuki Heikichi) to produce some of his most admired kachô-e, particularly those in large format naga-ôban (approximately 520 x 240 mm).
The subject matter and style of Shôson's prints appealed to the Western market and thus much of his work was intended for export. His compositional style and marketing significantly affected how his works were viewed in Japan, for he was considered an artist somewhat outside the circle of those who designed prints for the home market and the Japanese taste.
There is some dispute over whether Shôson designed any prints at all between 1911 and 1926 while still using the name Ohara Koson. Some researchers have said that he devoted himself exclusively to painting during these years, but Koson was not, apparently, recorded in official lists of Japanese style (Nihonga) painters of the period, nor mentioned in contemporaneous ukiyo-e art journals. Nevertheless, around 1926 he began working under the name Shôson with the preeminent shin hanga publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô. He also worked as Shôson for the publisher Nishinomiya Yosaku, and produced designs for Kawaguchi exclusively under the name Hôson (豊邨).
Works with the Shôson signature are sometimes less impressive than the earlier Koson-signed designs, but there are a few later exceptions. The image above illustrates one of his most highly regarded designs among those published after 1926, and although not dated (the majority of Shôson's prints lack dates), it is assumed to be circa early to mid-1930s. It depicts a small egret (Egretta garzetta) in a snow-covered willow tree in the decorative style that made Shôson's work appealing to Western collectors. The example on the left is the original ôtanzaku format (image = 374 x 167 mm). A rare "creped" version (chirimengami) was also published, date unknown, which is illustrated here on the right. The process of compressing the paper for a chirimengami-e reduces the overall size while maintaining the proportions of the original (chirimengami image = 289 x 134 mm).
The ôtanzaku impression is fine, with a dense black background that dramatically sets off the embossed white feathers printed in a pale reddish-gray. The influence of Chinese painting models is apparent, which Shôson reinterpreted to create an atmosphere of stillness and beauty, making this design an outstanding work from his later period.
There is another ôtanzaku edition of this design with a darker and more clearly defined edge to the gradated gray printing (bokashi) on the lower vertical section of the tree trunk. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo
- Brown, Kendall and Goodall-Cristante, Hollis: Shin-Hanga: New Prints in Modern Japan. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996, pp. 55-56, figs. 64-66.
- Jenkins, Donald: Images of a Changing World. Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century. Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1983, pp. 32-33, nos. 4-5.
- Stephens, Amy Reigle: Crows, Cranes and Camellias: The Natural World of Ohara Koson, 1877-1945. Hotei Publishing: Leiden 2001.
- Stephens, Amy Reigle (Ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth-Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection. London: Bamboo Pub., & Leiden, Hotei Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 122-125.