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Editions and Dating of a 36 Series Print

Unraveling the history of what Rakusan called 篁子生畫選, 篁子生畵選, or 篁子生画選, Koushisei Gasen, lit. 'Koshisei's Print Selections' (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.

Rakusan initially separately numbered the thirty-six 36 Series designs as 1 through 36 in the order they were first published. However, he had previously used those same numbers for the 100 Series. To avoid the confusion of duplicated numbering Rakusan soon decided to relabel the 36 Series designs as 101 through 136, thus continuing the consecutive numbering system used for the preceding 100 Series. This combined main sequence numbering system has been adapted also for the other major series and is used throughout the archive.

In beginning the 36 Series Rakusan made several alterations to the printing methods used in publishing the 100 Series. The newer 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, and Rakusan scaled the proportions in a way that he could use half sheets of his larger size paper.

Rakusan had decided to produce the 36 Series prints on plain paper; so the series title is not found on the prints themselves but only on associated materials (see below).

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 scheduled to be 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.

Remarkably, all two hundred sixteen 36 Series and Fan 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. The earliest documented sale of a complete set of the finished 36 Series was early September 1935, but delivery had to be delayed in order to reprint a few already sold out designs.

Although some of the designs were actually created in the latter half of 1933, the first installment was released in January 1934. Because some months were skipped, the series was not completed until early to mid 1935. Rakusan continued to reprint these designs until he closed his studio for World War II in 1941. After the war he resumed reprinting several of them during the period 1948-1955.

The six early 36 Series designs 101 through 106 were created and carved before the end of 1933 and were printed and distributed in January and February 1934 as the first two installments. The drawing styles, design inspirations, and signature and seal markings of the designs in the remaining thirty themes (ten installments) 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. (See in particular the discussions on the subpages for designs 121 and 125.)

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 installments follow through summer, autumn, winter, spring, and end with summer again in early 1935.

In publishing the 36 Series and the Fan 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. 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.

Although all copies of most designs are essentially identical, for several designs in the 36 Series Rakusan repeatedly experimented with modifying his ink colors and techniques. Apparently, all copies produced within 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.

It is usually impossible to determine the chronological order in which particular color 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 discussed in greater detail 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.

Formal definition of editions for 36 Series prints is difficult because even quite noticeable color distinctions do not necessarily coincide with edition changes. 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.

Edition I: The only complete edition of the 36 Series is edition I. Identical signature and seal markings usually appear on every copy of the same design, including some known to have been multiply reprinted over several years. Additionally, for some 36 Series designs there are no (or only very minor) variations in the printed image among all of the documented copies. Therefore, for those designs 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 of those designs impossible.

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. At least two others (126 and 130) are distinguished only by color differences. 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.
For edition II of 126 (and possibly additional designs) the same signature and seal are used, but the color of the seal changes.
For edition II of 130 (and possibly additional designs) the same signature and seal are used, but there are subtle color and technique differences.

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 manufactured with chain-lines 3 cm apart throughout the sheet. After the original, large sheet was cut in half and turned 90 degrees these chain-lines are now horizontal on the finished woodblock print. 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 dai-oban size paper previously watermarked for the 100 Series by cutting it in half and printing a 36 Series design on each half. On these 36 Series copies half of a 100 Series watermark turned vertically is visible on one side of the print. Each of these copies was presumably printed around the same time, probably just before the war.

As he had done earlier with the 100 Series Rakusan continued to deliver his print installments in red Manila-paper folio envelopes on which he had pasted various documentary labels. Unfortunately, these envelopes were usually discarded as packaging, and few have survived.

On the outside of the envelope was a woodblock-printed series title label based on Rakusan's own calligraphy:

Series Title from Folio Envelope
篁子生畫選, Koushisei Gasen (reading right-to-left)

On the inside (or under the flap) was a machine-printed colophon label which included a table of contents for the current installment, a series description, printing and publication information, and a preview list of the contents of the next installment. Because the publication dates and theme titles were the same for each installment of both the 36 Series and the Fan Series, Rakusan was able to use the same format template, and their machine-printed colophons are nearly identical. On the colophons the 36 Series title is printed as 篁子生畵選, Koushisei Gasen (reading top-to-bottom).

Edition I 36 Series and Fan Series prints were originally delivered tipped into recessed wells of presentation sheets which are embossed in their lower margins with the series title:

Series Title from Embossed Presentation Sheet
篁子生画選, Koushisei Gasen (reading right-to-left)

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 simultaneously published Fan Series prints.

36 Series and Fan Series prints have narrow margins because each of the copies has had the margins trimmed to fit within the presentation sheet wells – even those later 36 Series reprints which presumably never had presentation sheets.


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 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, 126, 130

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 invariably 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. Repeatedly using 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. At least two designs were reprinted in edition II without changing the seal. 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 on each of the remaining twenty-one edition I designs. Most designs with edition II reprintings use seal B – even if edition I had used a different seal. 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 and discussions.]

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, 132-133 126, 130
D 124 ---
B 107-111, 113-116, 119, 121-123, 125, 127-129, 131, 134-136 101, 104, 106, 108, 124, 125

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 applied for different, 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.

36 Series designs known to have been distributed before 1941 never have this stamp. Rakusan souvenir prints (unrelated to this series) which were dated and distributed in 1947 have city-name stamps; but those from April 1948 on do not. It seems likely that 1947-1948 marks the end of the period that city-name stamps were required.

City-name stamps were applied to some 36 Series copies from back stock in anticipation of their sale during this interval. These include some early copies with presentation sheets. However, not all prints marked with city-name stamps were distributed during this time. Some were sold later, and others remained unsold.

Although few edition II copies of 36 Series designs are documented, none have city-name stamps. It therefore seems likely that (as with the 100 Series) Rakusan did not begin reprinting the 36 Series until sometime after city-name stamps were no longer required. If this trend bears out, then any copy of a 36 Series design with a city-name stamp should be assigned a pre World War II printing date.

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. It is likely that the presence of a city-name stamp on a 36 Series design indicates a pre World War II printing date, and that no edition II copies will have city-name stamps.

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, 2018, 2019) Dr Michael J P Nichols