fri 14/06/2024

We Made It: Rebecca Salter RA | reviews, news & interviews

We Made It: Rebecca Salter RA

We Made It: Rebecca Salter RA

The British artist talks about a life inspired by traditional Japanese crafts

Rebecca Salter in her London StudioPhoto: courtesy of the artist

The English abstract artist Rebecca Salter has definitely made it. A major retrospective of her work in 2011 at the Yale Center for British Art, "Into the light of things: works 1981-2010”, included more than 150 works. She was elected a Royal Academician earlier this year.

And her long involvement with Japanese art has produced two books which are the standard works in English: Japanese Woodblock Printing (2001) and Japanese Popular Prints (2006), both published by A&C Black. Here she talks about her extensive work in Japan interviewing craftsman involved in the woodblock process, and sets their work in the wider context.

SEBASTIAN SCOTNEY: What can we in learn from the Japanese craft traditions about the importance of skill levels? Are we in danger of losing the plot in the West?

REBECCA SALTER: Japan has always placed huge cultural importance on the beautifully made object with exceptional attention to detail. This manifests itself positively in living craft traditions but sometimes negatively in a slightly rule-bound over-respectful approach which can stunt creativity. UK art schools are known internationally for their free-wheeling creative approach but it often lacks foundation in an understanding of skills and the joys and complexities of making. Over the last few years I have noticed a renewed interest in what you might old-fashioned "how to do it" skills.

Japanese woodblock printing is an activity you yourself have had a deep involvement in for three decades. What drew you to it originally?

Like so many western artists I was drawn to prints as a student because of their bold, flat colour and slightly quirky compositions. At the time I had no idea how they were made but having researched the technique and got to know many of the craftsmen I have huge admiration for their skill and versatility.

How does the future of woodblock printing in Japan look?

I persuade myself to be optimistic about the future because I have such respect for the ingenuity of the craftsmen that I believe they will hang on somehow. The problems they face are fairly fundamental; the traditional market has almost disappeared so they rely on the souvenir trade and commissions from artists/publishers. By commissioning prints for the Royal Academy Summer Show I am hoping to widen understanding of the contemporary technique outside Japan.

But surely the continuance of woodblock is something the Japanese themselves value?

It is valued to some extent but historically it was a plebeian art form so does not quite have the respect of calligraphy or the arts related to the tea ceremony.

You have a video archive of craftsmen involved in the different stages of the woodblock-printing process talking. Are their skills dying out?

I have 40 hours of video interviews with as many craftsmen as I could find. Many of them were the last in the line of their particular skill. For example I interviewed the last person in Kyoto to make and print playing cards by hand.

Could there be a documentary one day?

I did use TV quality video so in theory there could be. My problem is that I haven't had time to edit and subtitle them yet!

You interviewed one of the most celebrated paper-makers

I interviewed Iwano Ichibei IX who is a Living National Treasure and works in one of the most famous papermaking areas of Japan in Fukui prefecture (pictured left: the shrine in Echizen, the papermaking village where Iwano has his workshop). His paper is exquisite and is used for many different purposes but primarily for print. His father's paper was used by Picasso. Papermaking is a rural craft and is being hit by depopulation and the declining birthrate. It is a hard life and I can only hope that Japan can continue to find young people prepared to keep the tradition going. In Iwano's case the family lineage is strong but more worrying is the situation of ordinary small family businesses.

You also interviewed one of the makers of the carving tools. What was his story? Will that craft continue?

I interviewed Shimizu Hamono in Tokyo who make carving tools and kitchen knives. This family firm used to be samurai sword polishers! They have a forge about an hour outside Tokyo but the day I visited the blacksmith working there was in his early 70s. I hope they have found an apprentice to follow him.

Tell us about the prints which are in the RA exhibition this summer. Which Japanese printing workshop did you work with?

I decided to work with Sato Woodblock workshop in Kyoto who I've worked with before on a set of prints for my retrospective at Yale Center for British Art in 2011. Sato Keizou's father left rural western Japan in his early teens to be an apprentice in Tokyo. An apprentice would be expected to invest 10 to 15 years in learning the trade and even then only the very best would progress on to the most complex carving or printing. The others carved and printed the easy bits. Sato's father completed his apprenticeship and moved to Kyoto to set up a print workshop which is now run by his son Keizou who is 75. They are particularly skilled at reproducing in woodcut the soft Japanese-style paintings typical of Kyoto. (Pictured left: the Sato workshop with two of his apprentices)

What task did you set the printers?

I went to Japan in March with two watercolours which I had painted on muslin. The challenge was to reproduce not only the grid of the muslin but also the soft "run" of the watercolour. And they managed it! The finished prints will be in the RA Summer Show.

And you currently also have a retrospective exhibition in London

Beardsmore Gallery in Kentish Town have been showing my work for many years and decided to put on a retrospective of my drawings in celebration of my election to the Royal Academy. Drawing is at the heart of everything I do and it has been interesting to see the elements within the drawings that keep coming back over a span of 30-plus years.

The problems the woodbock craftsmen face are fairly fundamental; the traditional market has almost disappeared

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