Typical or Quintessential?

On my first visit to Kyoto in 1985, I stopped in at the Kyoto Handicraft Center, a wonderful emporium of traditional and modern Japanese art. I bought three silkscreen prints of typical Kyoto scenes: a Zen garden; the bannered entrance to a restaurant; and a traditional wooden house with shoji screens. They are hanging together in our family room.

Kato Father and Son

It was straight-forward to research the prints’ provenance. They are the work of the photographer and printer-maker Hideaki Kato, who signs his work “H. Kato.” Yuichiro Kato was born in Kyoto in 1926 and began working as a professional photographer in 1958. His son Hideaki, born in 1954, entered the family business after studying biology at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, learning photography from his father. The father turned to silkscreen print-making in 1972, and the son a decade later.

Both have focused their careers on photographing and making prints in their hometown of Kyoto, with its wealth of Zen gardens, Buddhist and Shinto temples, and traditional wooden homes. (Kyoto was spared bombing during World War Two because the American Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, recognized its cultural significance.) The Katos produce numerous prints, in large runs of 300, so their prices, between $200 and $500 US, are modest enough to appeal to casual collectors like me.

Typical or Quintessential?

Something typical displays the elements or characteristics of its class; something quintessential is the perfect example of its class or displays the characteristics of its class in its purest form. To find the typical, you can select at random from the class. To identify the quintessential, you must study many examples of the class and select the one you believe to be purest, perhaps because it is undiluted by syncretistic elements or perhaps because its colour, shape, or proportions have the greatest aesthetic appeal.

Are the Katos producing prints typical of Kyoto or are they capturing the quintessence of the Kyoto aesthetic? Not surprisingly, they claim to be doing the latter. Their print-making process enables them to edit their photos, for example to intensify colours. Certainly, the garden displays a sharp contrast between the silvery-white raked sand and the deep green of the plants and moss. Similarly, the print of the traditional house contrasts the deep blue, burgundies, and blacks of the night sky and walls with the yellowy-white of the lights.

In addition to Kato’s use of bright colour, I think his composition is outstanding. The Zen garden print places a moss-covered island of stone in the centre, and the rest of the print rotates around it, particularly the other groups of trees and stones. The garden wall, topped by roof tiles, provides a frame to complete the picture.

The print of the restaurant entryway is centered on the fish in the middle of the banner. It combines several distinct textures: the cloth of the banner, the wavy roof tiles, the vertical slats of wood, the pebbled walkway leading into the restaurant, the ferns between the banner and the walkway, and the large stones framing the walkway. All the different shapes work to provide symmetry and visual interest, and to invite the viewer to follow the path through the banner for the wonderful meal that awaits.

I found the print of the traditional home online. It is entitled, Shinise, or long-established store, and depicts the entrance to the Michelin-starred Kyoto restaurant Toriyasa, located in a storefront that opened in 1788. I find the colour-contrast outstanding, as well as the strong horizontal lines of the roof and porch, offset by the vertical lines of the woodwork and shoji screens. The light leads the viewer to imagine the groups dining inside.

A Place of Honour

I have wonderful associations with Kyoto, particularly its Zen gardens, temples, Imperial palace, ryokans, and communal baths. Seven years ago, our son Nathaniel was my companion for a three-week trip to Japan, of which Kyoto was one of the highlights.

I spend a lot of time reading, for work or pleasure, and watching television in the family room, and I always enjoy glancing at Kato’s screen prints. I consider them quintessential.


Addendum: Postcript to Mondok Post

I sent my post about Wayne Mondok’s mountain landscape print to him, and he replied with a fascinating discussion of his creative process. I’ve included it as an addendum to the original post if you are interested.

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