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Editions and Dating of a 36 Series Print

Unraveling the history of , 篁子生畵選 (or 篁子生画選), Koushisei Gasen, lit. 'Koshisei's Print Selection' (usually called here the 36 Series) remains problematic. The series was developed from what was originally intended to be a sideline project. Rakusan's business plan was for his second main sequence series to be another formal, large-format project comparable in every way to his first success, the 100 Series. What became the 36 Series was just supposed to make a bit of money in order to support that goal. However, the immediate success of the first few designs led Rakusan to embrace the 36 Series as his second main sequence series.

Although initially separately numbered 1 through 36 in the order they were first published, Rakusan eventually chose to continue his consecutive numbering system used for the preceding 100 Series to include the 36 Series. Accordingly, Rakusan renumbered the thirty-six woodblock prints of the 36 Series 101 through 136, and that later system is the one used here.

Rakusan made several changes prior to beginning the 36 Series. The prints were produced with the same professional level of care and skill, but the designs were smaller, simpler, easier and quicker to produce than those in his first series. 36 Series prints are oban-size, half the size of 100 Series prints, but both series have similar proportions so that Rakusan could use half sheets of his larger size paper.

Rakusan had decided to produce the 36 Series on plain paper; so the series title is not found on the prints themselves but only on associated materials, including the presentation sheets (see below). Rakusan also continued to deliver his print installments in red Manila-paper folio envelopes to which he attached a woodblock-printed series title label based on his own calligraphy:

Series Title from Delivery Folio Envelope
篁子生畵選, Koushisei Gasen (original reads right-to-left)

Rakusan originally distributed the 36 Series designs to series subscribers in installments with accompanying publication documents. As with the series title labels above, these documents were pasted onto the folio envelopes used to contain the deliveries, and as an unfortunate result were typically soon discarded with the packaging. To date none of those documents for this series have been located, and all of the dates mentioned here are extrapolated from material associated with other series. However, almost certainly at least some of the 36 Series installment documents have survived and will provide more precise series dating.

Remarkably, the 36 Series designs were created and first published within a period of only two years. Until the middle of 1933 the Rakusan studio was fully occupied in the production of the final designs in the 100 Series, and a complete set of the finished 36 Series was sold in early September 1935. Although issued as a separate series, the 36 Series is intimately related to the Fan Series. These two series were produced and marketed at the same time as part of the same overall project. Each of the two series are arranged into the same thirty-six distinct, shared-subject, sets (here called themes). The designs were released in monthly installments, each including the designs in three themes which were published in the same order (and at the same time) in both series. (See in particular the discussions on the subpages for designs 121 and 125.)

The first group of six early 36 Series designs, 101-106, were created and carved before the end of 1933, and all six had been printed and distributed by the end of February 1934. The drawing styles, design inspirations, and signature and seal markings of the designs in the remaining thirty themes suggest that they were created within at least three sequential periods. There is evidence that Rakusan was as usual developing the series as he went along, and he changed his mind several times about the composition and ordering of the subject themes. As a result, the order in which the Fan Series and the 36 Series designs were created and carved is often not the order in which they were eventually first published.

The actual order the designs were published follows a general progression of the seasons represented by their theme subjects. However, the themes were arranged so that the prints would be released a few months before their seasons. The first six 36 Series designs and their themes represent spring and summer designs. The subsequent designs follow a general seasonal progression through summer, autumn, winter, spring; and ending with summer again in mid 1935.

In publishing the Fan Series and the 36 Series Rakusan made no promises about limited editions. This relaxation of his earlier requirements meant that Rakusan could freely reproduce and sell additional copies whenever he wished.

Edition I: The only complete edition of the 36 Series is edition I. Identical signature and seal markings typically appear on every copy of the same design, including some known to have been multiply reprinted over several years. Therefore the edition I printing period usually covers the entire remaining time the Rakusan studio was in operation, and that makes closer dating of most individual copies impossible. Printings and reprintings of the 36 Series designs involved smaller print runs than the two hundred copies typical of those for the preceding 100 Series. Rakusan had found it quicker and more convenient to print fewer copies in each print run and to reprint more frequently.

Edition II: Currently, only six 36 Series designs (101, 104, 106, 108, 124, and 125) are known to have been reprinted in later editions distinguished by attribution markings different from those used on edition I copies. For temporary convenience here these later edition copies are grouped together as edition II, but there is no evidence that any single, contemporaneous, later edition is definable.
For edition II of 101 Rakusan used both a different signature and a different seal.
For edition II of 104, 106, and 124 only the seal is different.
For edition II of 108 and 125 the same signature and seal are used, but they appear in a different location within the design.

The original edition I markings were still in use on early complete sets sold in 1935 and 1936, and were likely used for several more years after that. Unfortunately, the time of transition from edition I to edition II markings is uncertain for nearly all of these designs. However, edition II of 108 is known to be exclusively post World War II and probably from between about 1950 and 1955. The scarcity of these later edition copies suggests that only a single small print run of each was ever made. It also means that it is almost certain that additional designs also have later editions which remain to be discovered.

Printing of the 36 Series was almost always done on washi paper without kanji watermarks. However, the paper was made with horizontal chain-lines 3 cm apart throughout the sheet. Like a kanji watermark the chain-lines can be seen by holding the paper up to the light, and are sometimes also visible on the surface of the print.

Around the time of World War II Rakusan ran out of his preferred paper. He then repurposed some sheets of watermarked dai-oban size paper by cutting it in half and printing a 36 Series design on each half. There are a few documented 36 Series copies where half of a 100 Series watermark (turned 90 degrees) is visible. Each of those copies was presumably printed around the same time, probably just before the war.

Edition I 36 Series prints were originally delivered tipped into recessed wells of presentation sheets which are embossed in their lower margins with the series title (reading right-to-left), 篁子生画選, Koushisei Gasen:

Presentation Sheet Embossed Series Title

Because all early edition I prints once had these presentation sheets, a copy which retains its presentation sheet must have been printed during the 1930s. After his supply of presentation sheets was exhausted, Rakusan distributed subsequently reprinted copies loose or tipped onto plain paper. A limited number of leftover earlier printed copies of some designs on presentation sheets were still being distributed shortly after World War II, but by then most designs were only available unmounted. Absence of presentation sheets is not diagnostic of later reprinting because many early prints have subsequently been detached from those sheets. (These same presentation sheets were used also for the Fan Series prints published during the same period.)

36 Series Signatures: The characters that form the signature are in black ink just above the red (or red-brown) seal and within the image area of the print. The only 36 Series occurrence of the single-name signature 篁子生, Kou-shi-sei, is on edition I copies of 101, the first print of the new series. 101 is also the only main sequence print where Rakusan did not somewhere use his primary art name, 楽山, Raku-zan. (Rakusan apparently decided that this break in naming continuity was unwise, and all subsequent prints in this series have signatures combining both art names.) Later edition copies of 101, and those of all other designs in the 36 Series regardless of edition, have the signature 楽山篁子生, Raku-zan Kou-shi-sei. Therefore except for 101, the signature is of no help in determining edition or dating of 36 Series prints.


Rakuzan Koushisei

36 Series Signature Distributions
signature edition I distribution edition II distribution
篁子生 Kou-shi-sei 101 ---
楽山篁子生 Raku-zan Kou-shi-sei 102-136 101, 104, 106, 108, 124, 125

36 Series Seals
The production of Rakusan series woodblock prints is divided into sequential periods during which Rakusan almost always used the same seal. Rakusan always included a seal as an integral part of each woodblock-printed design. As a result, printing each new design required carving that seal into one of the wooden printing blocks. Continuing to use the same seal streamlined that process as the carver became familiar with it. Note that these production periods characterized by use of a single seal reflect when the printing blocks for the designs were carved - not necessarily when the designs were created nor when they were printed and distributed. Including information from other series regarding use of the same seals has suggested the following seal use periods for the 36 Series:

Seal A is represented in the 36 Series only from edition I of the first six designs, but seal A had been the most used seal in the immediately preceding 100 Series. Continued use of seal A into the 36 Series therefore suggests carving dates falling in the late summer and autumn of 1933. However, the 36 Series designs with seal A were actually not published until January and February of 1934.

Seal C is chronologically the next seal Rakusan used on new prints, and it was the predominant seal used when carving new designs in the last months of 1933 and into the first quarter of 1934. It was during this period that most of the Fan Series designs were created and carved. At least some seal C designs were used in each of the thirty remaining themes in order to set up the basic framework of the series. However, many themes still lacked Fan Series or 36 Series designs as the seal C period ended. In the 36 Series seal C appears only on eight edition I designs whose themes are scattered throughout the remainder of the series and continued to be published well into 1935. Seal D is a minor seal within the seal C period which was used in the 36 Series only on one edition I design published in November of 1934.

Seal B increasingly began to replace use of seal C toward the end of the first quarter of 1934. In the Fan Series and the 36 Series seal B was used to provide whatever designs were necessary to infill any of the remaining thirty themes still lacking designs as time came to publish them. Seal B appears in the 36 Series not only on all of the other twenty-one edition I designs, but also on all known edition II reprintings. Seal B would remain the dominant seal for the rest of Rakusan's career.

[Note that the seal illustrations below are not to the same scale. See also the separate article on Rakusan Seals for additional seal illustrations.]

Seal A

Seal C

Seal D

Seal B

36 Series Seal Distributions
seal code letter edition I distribution edition II distribution
A 101-106 ---
C 112, 117-118, 120, 126, 130, 132-133 ---
D 124 ---
B 107-111, 113-116, 119, 121-123, 125, 127-129, 131, 134-136 101, 104, 106, 108, 124, 125

For some 36 Series designs there are no (or only very minor) variations in the printed image among all of the documented copies. For other designs Rakusan repeatedly experimented with modifying his ink colors and techniques. Apparently, all copies produced as a single print run look alike, but successive print runs within only a few months can look very different. Some of these variations were obviously deliberate since they were repeated in more than one print run. Because print runs were small, it is all but certain that additional color variations will continue to be discovered.

For the 100 Series designs any color and technique variations also coincide with different edition markings and can be used to help recognize and define those editions. However, different versions of the same 36 Series designs typically have the same edition markings, especially since most 36 Series designs have only a single edition. It is usually impossible to determine the chronological order in which particular variations occurred, therefore most distinguishing codes are arbitrarily assigned.

Here each consistent suite of color and technique variations of a single design is called a morph. Morphs which coincide with edition definitions are usually labeled only with the edition designations. However, morphs occurring within the same edition are indicated with (a), (b), etc. after the design number. The different morphs for each design are illustrated and discussed on the subpage for that design.

An example of a 36 Series design with two color morphs within a single edition is 117 (shown below and on the subpage for 117). Note that the differences in morph colors as in these examples were originally printed that way. They are not the result of fading or other chemical alterations to the pigments.

117 (a)

117 (b)

As war approached Rakusan found it difficult to obtain his accustomed supplies. Some late prewar prints prints lack metallic inks and may also have less or no metallic glitter scattering.

Primary writing on Rakusan woodblock prints is woodblock-printed and is included as part of the process of the printing of the image. Two additional kinds of writing, here called secondary addenda, have occasionally been applied later. These particular secondary addenda were for different, and quite independent, reasons. Copies distributed during certain periods may have one, or the other, or both. All early copies (and certain late ones) have neither.

City-Name Stamps: Around the time of World War II, Rakusan was required to add a maker's stamp to his prints, but the details of exactly when and why are uncertain. The stamp consists of a vertical column of tiny machine-made characters (rather like a miniscule typewriter font) which read from top to bottom: 京都 土屋楽山, Kyouto - Tsuchiya Rakuzan; Kyoto (the city where Rakusan lived) and the Japanese form of his name. This stamp is always in red ink and is located in one of the corners of the design within the image area.

Copies distributed before the late 1930s never have this stamp, nor do many later copies believed reprinted in the early 1950s. However, some early copies on presentation sheets do have city-name stamps which were apparently applied many years later. Rakusan souvenir prints (unrelated to this series) were distributed in 1947 with city-name stamps; but by mid 1948, they are no longer used. It seems likely that 1947-1948 marks the end of the period that city-name stamps were required.

Cursive Romaji Rakusan Signatures: Rakusan added a secondary romaji signature to prints intended to be sold through Walter Foster. (See the Foster article.) These signatures consisted exclusively of the art name Rakusan hand-written in cursive Western script using a nearly dry brush and dilute black ink. It was always placed just inside the image area along the lower margin, but was never woodblock-printed.

Rakusan used this particular method of signing prints only during the period when Foster was acting as his sales agent for woodblock prints in the USA, primarily in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, even during the Foster era this signature was only applied to selected small batches of prints. Because Rakusan also continued to sell his prints directly to studio visitors, copies from the same print run were sold in Kyoto either with or without this signature depending on what was readily at hand at the time. Some copies with this signature were left over when the Foster arrangement was ended. These continued to be distributed from the Rakusan studio (often years later), and others remained uncirculated.

The presence of this signature does not necessarily indicate anything about when the copy bearing it was actually printed or sold - only approximately when and how it was intended to be distributed. Apparently some signatures were applied after the war to pre-World War II backstock copies, but most examples are on later reprints. A few particular production variations occur predominately or exclusively with the Foster era signature which suggests that those variations occurred only in postwar reprintings.

1. If a copy of a 36 Series design is still attached to its original embossed presentation sheet, it will be from an early edition I printing. Because more than one early morph (such as 117 (a) and 117 (b) illustrated above) may have these presentation sheets, it cannot yet be determined which of those versions is earlier or later within edition I. All copies with presentation sheets were apparently printed during the 1930s, but a few of these earlier-printed copies were not distributed until after World War II.

2. Unless a design has an edition II, a loose 36 Series copy with edition I markings (and no other clues to age) can only be dated from between the time of its first publication and the final closure of the studio in 1955.

3. A print copy with a city-name stamp was intended to be distributed around the time of World War II or shortly thereafter.

4. A print copy with a cursive romaji handwritten signature within the image was intended to be distributed through Foster, and that signature was only secondarily applied to a print during that period centering around the 1950s.

5. A 36 Series copy with edition II markings is always the last version for that particular design. There is no evidence that Rakusan ever returned to an earlier attribution marking once having made a change.

© 2012 (revisions © 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017) Dr Michael J P Nichols