Japanese Scroll Paintings - in Multiples

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Posted by Interested Collector ( on March 10, 2016 at 16:09:40:

I know that this forum focuses on ukiyo-e, but I hope that you'll indulge a question on a closely related topic.

In the last year, I've become interested in scroll paintings (kakejiku) from Japan. For "original," "hand-painted" works, and all of the variety they have, scroll paintings remain relatively inexpensive in comparison with fine woodblock prints.

That said, and as the use of quotation marks above suggest, I've begun to run into some Japanese paintings that simply confound me, and throw off all my assumptions about these pieces as original artwork. For example:

1) Nearly (but not quite) identical versions of the same works. Example: A bijin image with the figure in exactly the same (unusual) posture, with exactly the same kimono pattern, but colored differently, with different facial expression. Additionally, these were both clearly hand-painted (although perhaps hand painted over printed tracing lines, or according to a set format??) and their details (thickness of line, coloring) differ. Also, these two, nearly identical works were signed by completely different artists!

2) Mix-and-match elements of composition (huts, bridges, figures, mountains of exactly the same type), particularly in modern landscape works in a late literati manner. I believe these were "department store" type paintings, sold relatively cheaply--perhaps painted in bulk by piecework artists only pretending to care about their creations??

3) Less confounding, but still troubling: Works that are described as hand-painted, but are exactly the same in every detail. I suspect this is just dealer fraud and that these are printed works.

I know that paintings are a notoriously difficult field, with printing sometimes masquerading as painting, and fake signatures and seals everywhere. I know too that sometimes an artist could make multiple copies of his own, painted work. But what I am seeing in some of these "original," "hand-painted" works (especially early-mid 20th century) suggests to me some type of mass-production, most likely not strictly of an assembly line type, but perhaps commissions farmed out to somewhat skilled painters as piecework. Obviously, this would reduce these works to the status of decorative pieces rather than artwork.

Does anyone know anything about this aspect of painting production in the early-mid 20th century? More generally: are there articles or websites on collecting Japanese paintings you'd suggest to an interested collector?

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