This design is the twenty-third of thirty-six woodblock prints in Rakusan's second main sequence series,
篁子生画選, Koushisei Gasen
, lit. 'Koushisei's Print Selection' (usually called here the 36 Series
). Rakusan originally labeled this design number 23. However, after 1936 reprinting two series with duplicated numbering caused some confusion. To avoid further problems Rakusan decided to extend the numbering system from the preceding 100 Series
into the 36 Series
, and this design was relabeled as number 123, the 123rd design published in his main sequence. Rakusan occasionally wrote his identification number in pencil on the reverse of the print.
Currently Documented Edition Signature and Seal Markings and Morphs:
||+ Seal B (brownish red)
||Morph 123 (a)
||+ Seal B (brownish red)
||Morph 123 (b)
||+ Seal B (bright red)
||Morph 123 (c)
[For illustration of seals listed by seal code letter, see the Seals article.
For edition and dating characteristics applicable to the entire series, see the Editions article.]
The woodblock print of 123 was adapted from 123-0, an actual-size original painting on silk.
Because Rakusan intended to retain all of the 36 Series
prototypes in his personal collection, he did not affix a signature or seal, and the silk remained loose and unmounted. The silk was originally a pale cream color, but over time it has significantly yellowed:
|123-0 (original painting on silk, collection of the artist)
Like most 36 Series designs 123 has the same signature and seal combination on every copy. However, at least three different versions can be distinguished: two in edition I, morph 123 (a) and morph 123 (b); and another in edition II, morph 123 (c). Unfortunately the available example images were taken under different conditions on different equipment, and the colors are not precisely comparable.
Edition Ia, Morph 123 (a) (1934-1935): Half of the documented examples of 123 are from what is apparently the first printed version, edition Ia, morph123 (a). This version is easily recognized by the darkish brown sizing covering the entire front side of the paper which was also used for the preceding design, 122. The woodblock printing is done on top of this covering and appears darker overall than any of the other versions. The background appears to be unprinted and takes its color only from the special sizing. The larger branch and its lichen covering are predominantly shades of brown, and the seal is a dark brownish red. To date several copies of morph 123 (a) have been documented with presentation sheets (see below). The first example above is typical of edition Ia, morph 123 (a).
Edition Ib, Morph 123 (b) (1935-1941):
One quarter of the documented copies of 123 are from the second prewar edition Ib, morph 123 (b). Unlike the previous version 123 (b) copies are printed on the normal Rakusan paper without the special dark sizing, but the previous dark brownish red seal has been retained. The background is unprinted and takes its color from that of the original paper. Overall the design elements are lighter and brighter. This is especially notable on the bird, and there also is more gray on all of the branches, and the patches of lichen are olive green. Copies of edition Ib, morph 123 (b) with presentation sheets (see below) were already being sold in late 1935 and early 1936. Copies of this morph with city-name stamps show that supplies were still available for sale at least as late as 1947. This suggests that morph 123 (b) was the later and last of the edition I printings of 123. The second example above is typical of edition Ib, morph 123 (b).
Edition II, Morph 123 (c) (1948-1955): Although edition II copies of most designs are very rarely (if ever) encountered, edition II, morph 123 (c) accounts for nearly a quarter of all documented examples of 123. This larger number of examples is due to promotion and sales by Walter Foster (see below). Other than the special case of the Foster illustration of the last stage of the 123 process set, all documented copies of edition II, morph 123 (c) have had Foster's requested cursive Rakusan romaji signature secondarily added. Although retaining most of the changes made for 123 (b), among the modifications in color and technique for edition II are the introduction of a printed tan background including darker bokashi shading at the bottom, chalky grayish white highlights on the ends of the older branches, recoloring the lichen a brighter pale green, and changing the seal color to bright red. The third example above is typical of edition II, morph 123 (c).
123 is one of the very few Rakusan designs for which any printing details exist.
The Foster booklet reports that edition II, morph 123 (c) required 37 printing impressions to complete.
The earliest 36 Series prints were delivered tipped into recessed wells of presentation sheets embossed in their lower margins with the 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.
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 as loose sheets.
However, absence of presentation sheets is not diagnostic of later printings because many early prints have subsequently been detached from theirs.
Other Foster Information:
123 is among the most familiar Rakusan designs because of Walter Foster.
Foster included from his personal collection reduced-size reproductions of four sheets of an edition II, morph 123 (c) process set on page 8 of his booklet, together with instructions on how to copy the design as a drawing and watercolor painting.
(This important process set is discussed more fully in the Process Set article
As advertised in the booklet, Foster initially offered original 9" x 14" woodblock prints of 123 for $6.
Although Foster printed up and sold high quality reproductions of many of the 100 Series
designs illustrated in the booklet, there is no indication that similar reproductions were made of 123 or any other 36 Series
design. What are sometimes offered for sale as reproductions of 123 are actually only copies of page 8 cut from the Foster booklet.
Oddly, Foster makes no reference to 123 being part of a series of designs although he surely knew it was.
Foster made up titles of his own to use in the booklet, and most are inaccurate at best.
Here he called 123, "Bird on Limb".
[For additional general information on Foster, the booklet, or the fine art reproductions, see the Foster article.]
The Rakusan project which produced 篁子生画選, Koushisei Gasen
, resulted in two related series of woodblock prints.
Each print of the 36 Series
is intimately connected to a group of prints with the same subjects in the Fan Series
Together these subject-related prints in the two series constitute a theme.
Each theme typically consists of a quintet of monochrome Fan Series
designs (one design in each of the five fan shapes), plus one polychrome,
design which illustrates the theme subject.
The theme is labeled here by the original Rakusan number of its 36 Series
design followed by the subject.
123 is the 36 Series
design of the 123 Red Plum
The 123 Red Plum theme is one of three different themes based on flowering plums. (The other two are 122 Wild Plum and 124 Bonsai Plum.) Because the Fan Series prints for all three of these themes were delivered as a single installment, it has proven very difficult to assign the individual, loose, flowering plum designs to their appropriate themes. In monochrome prints the color of plum blossoms is uncertain, and of course a bonsai plum can be any color. However, there are exactly three designs of each fan shape, and there is no evidence that the installment consists of anything other than three entirely regular themes each with a complete Fan Series quintet.
The publication of the flowering plum Fan Series installment is very well documented.
The delivery documents for installment seven in October 1934 list the three plum themes in a preview announcement for the installment due the following month. Those for installment eight confirm that the Fan Series woodblock prints for all three plum themes were printed during November 1934 and were distributed November 22, 1934 as installment eight (of twelve).
Rakusan used the same three theme titles on both sets of documents on the delivery folio envelopes: 野梅, ya-bai, 'wild plum'; 紅梅, kou-bai, 'red plum'; and 盆梅, bon-bai, 'bonsai plum'. These are also the original titles of their corresponding 36 Series designs 122,123, and 124 published at the same time.
The theme assignment issues and the signature and seal markings of the flowering plum designs suggest that their Fan Series prints are best considered together as a single unit of fifteen designs.
Fully thirteen of the fifteen Fan Series designs have seal C which indicates carving dates between the last months of 1933 and the end of the first quarter of 1934.
The other two Fan Series designs have rare minor seals, one example each of seal Q and of seal R. They may possibly date from the seal A period around the third quarter of 1933, from the seal C period (which would make all of the flowering plum Fan Series designs contemporaneous), or from the subsequent seal B period. The 36 Series bonsai plum design, 124, is the sole woodblock print example of minor seal D whose carving period is assigned to the seal C period.
After preparing the wooden blocks for these relatively early designs, Rakusan set them aside for several months.
The remaining two 36 Series flowering plum designs, 122 and 123, have seal B which indicates they were not carved until somewhat later, and perhaps only shortly before their publication.
Rakusan was aware of the problem of recognizing the theme assignments for the individual flowering plum Fan Series designs. He decided to label the first Fan Series print of two of the three themes with a theme title incorporated into the design.
Because Rakusan put these exceptional titles on designs of the same fan shape, that shape was defined here as fan shape 1 for the entire series.
Corresponding to 36 Series design 123 is Fan Series design 123-1 which incorporates the title 紅梅之圖, kou-bai no zu, Red Plum Pictures, [之圖 would now be written の図].
Rakusan was otherwise relying only on his original distribution arrangement to keep the themes separate.
He would have arranged the prints so that the subscriber received each of the three theme sets in the proper order with each of the first two themes beginning with a fan shape 1 design with a title. (The third set has no title on its fan shape 1 design.)
Unfortunately, since the prints were delivered loose, and were thus easily rearranged, that original delivery order has not been reliably preserved in any surviving collection.
Rakusan had published four flowering plum designs in the previous 100 Series, 4, 22, 63, and 89.
Certainly many later flowering plum theme designs were adapted from sketches originally created in the late 1920s during the planning of those earlier woodblock prints.
Interestingly, the order in which the three 36 Series designs were first published reflects the order in which their most closely similar 100 Series designs appeared:
122 is the same variety as 4; 123 is the same as 22 (and 22alt); and 124 is the same as 63. (However, there are no plum theme designs which closely correspond to 89.)
Copies in Public Collections:
Edition I, Morph (b): Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, Wisconsin, USA; 1968.1.645 [illustrated online]
Japanese Plum-Apricot (usually called Plum), Prunus mume
, 梅, うめ, ウメ, ume
, is a Japanese native flowering fruit tree.
It has been extensively hybridized and selected, and there are many forms and colors.
As one of the earliest blooming trees, it is a beloved cultural symbol of the turning of the seasons when it blooms in the winter and early spring.
野梅 ya-bai or no-ume, lit. 'field plum', is the general name for any kind of wild plum.
Most wild trees have white single flowers, but often a few double blossoms appear on the same tree.
Selection for this trait has resulted an array of forms with single, semi-double, and double blooms.
As with other flowering fruit trees weeping forms have also been created.
A few wild plums have varying amounts of red pigment in the wood, shoots, and flowers; and this trait has also been encouraged in breeding.
These pigmented forms are collectively called by a different name, Red Plum, 紅梅, こうばい, コウバイ, kou-bai, lit. 'red plum', but are actually the same species.
(The descriptor 紅 may be read either as beni or as kou, and can mean a wide range of colors from crimson-red through rose to pale pink, depending on the context.
Although conventionally translated into English as Red Plum, many familiar 紅梅 flowers are actually pink.)
The old growth of plum trees is often embellished with lichen and fungi in these prints, and a few have evidence of small animal life.
In 123 and a few other plum fan designs currently assigned to this theme (123-1, 123-3, 123-5), small, striped, mounded gray ovals are shown adhering to the tree bark. These also occur on designs 4 and 62 in the 100 Series.
They are over-wintering adults of a kind of small ladybird beetle (family Coccinellidae) whose larvae are major predators of scale-insects. Their general name is 天道虫, 瓢虫, 紅娘, てんとう虫, てんとうむし, テントウムシ, tentoumushi. The particular species Rakusan illustrates is probably Chilocorus rubidus, 赤星天道虫, 赤星瓢虫, あかほしてんとうむし, アカホシテントウムシ, aka-hoshi tentoumushi, lit. 'red-spot ladybird-beetle'. Most of the time these small beetles are firmly attached to plum, peach, or other ornamental trees.
There are six beetles in 123, including one which the tit is probing.
Varied Tit, Parus varius, 山雀, やまがら, ヤマガラ, yama-gara, lit. 'mountain tit', is a familiar native species.
Rakusan was fond of portraying these active little birds, and they occur in several different designs.