Of Japan / by Jeannine Cook

So often there seems to be a "fitness of time' operating in the coincidences and opportunities that come along in life, at least as far as I find.  One of these opportune moments arrived as I decided I needed to get on with a list of things related only peripherally to art, but nonetheless important to do.

I inherited a set of Japanese woodcuts which my grandfather, Francis James Anderson, along with a group of foreign business men, had commissioned after the 1923 Great Earthquake and fire in Yokohama, Japan, had obliterated the life work of many Japanese artists and left them penniless and out of work.  I believe a hundred people clubbed together to commission the Japanese artists to create these woodcuts as a way of ensuring they cut new wood blocks based on traditional prints and started them afresh with some livelihood from art.

These woodcuts hung on the walls of my home in Tanzania and later in Mallorca.   They certainly influenced my eye and sense of composition in regard to my own art; they taught me of subtle, complex beauty and made me appreciate non-Western worlds long before I thought consciously of such matters. Now I have just scanned them all; they need to be cared for properly since they were created at a time when acidic paper was being used and are showing the signs of damage that need to be halted.

Thinking about the woodcuts made me measure coincidences in their creation.  At the time the artists were creating them, in 1924, my grandfather was also photographing life in Japan.  He too was starting afresh with a new camera since he had lost absolutely everything, including a huge number of photographs, in the earthquake.

The contrast between the idealised, traditional version of life, beautiful women and general scenes as depicted in the woodcuts and the life photographed in everyday 1923-24 Japan is interesting.

 A Beauty, 1924 woodcut print, original attributed to Kokan Shiba (1728-1800)

A Beauty, 1924 woodcut print, original attributed to Kokan Shiba (1728-1800)

 Japanese Girl, 1923-34, F.J.Anderson photographer

Japanese Girl, 1923-34, F.J.Anderson photographer

 A Jollification, 1924 woodcut print,  original attributed to Seiko Miyakawa

A Jollification, 1924 woodcut print,  original attributed to Seiko Miyakawa

 A more sedate Jollification, 1923-24, F.J.Anderson photographer

A more sedate Jollification, 1923-24, F.J.Anderson photographer

 The Screen maker, 1924 woodcut print, original created over 1000 years previously by Takahane Fujiwara

The Screen maker, 1924 woodcut print, original created over 1000 years previously by Takahane Fujiwara

 At the Loom, 1923-24, F.J. Anderson photographer

At the Loom, 1923-24, F.J. Anderson photographer

 Street in the Evening, 1924 wood cut print, after original by Kawamata Jogyo (17th-18th century)

Street in the Evening, 1924 wood cut print, after original by Kawamata Jogyo (17th-18th century)

 Japanese Lady, 1923-24, F.J.Anderson photographer

Japanese Lady, 1923-24, F.J.Anderson photographer

There are many other images somewhat paralleling each other in the woodcuts produced by the earthquake survivor artists and the photographs my grandfather took on his weekend trips away from the devastation of Yokohama and Tokyo. 

All of them remind me, however, of two important things.  The first is that we should all try to ensure that artists can earn a decent living creating images that can enrich future generations. The second is that we need photographers who record every day life before change gallops those scenes into history. I am lucky that both coincided in my life.