The Life and Art of Tanigami Konan

The Life and Art of Tanigami Konan

Tanigami Konan was a prolific early 20th-century Japanese artist whose realistic flower art looks as vibrant and stunning today as when it was first created – over a century ago! We're big fans of his Japanese woodblock prints here and we're excited to share a little about his life and art with you.

Who Was Tanigami Konan?

Nasturtiums Woodblock Art Print by Tanigami Konan from Flora Botanica Store

Tanigami Konan is a man of mystery. Not much is known of his life and there are no portraits or photos of him, but we do know that he was born in 1879 in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan and went on to live and work in neighbouring Osaka. It's likely that he learnt his trade as an apprentice to another more experienced artist, perhaps at a respected art school, as was customary at that time.

One reason for his mysterious past might be the habit of Japanese artists to adopt the name of their mentor when training was complete. Konan may not be his original name at all.  

Nevertheless, he was a skilled painter in a traditional Japanese style, known as nihonga, which used a colour palette made of natural pigments or inks mixed with water and painted onto silk or washi paper.

However, he is best known for his printmaking, specifically the woodblock technique known as mokuhanga. Japanese woodblock printing differed from Western woodcuts by using water-based inks rather than oil-based ones, to produce softer, lighter, washier results. You can see the different tones he achieved in the petals and leaves of the gorgeous nasturtium print he painted – shown above. 

How does Japanese woodblock printing work?

Hokusai's Great Wave image as an example of Japanese woodblock printing
  • It all begins with a smoothly sanded block of wood. Artists back then liked cherry wood, but katsura, lime and magnolia wood were and still are popular for their tight, easy-to-carve grain.
  • Artists drew their designs onto a thin piece of paper and stuck it to a smoothly sanded block of wood, sometimes oiling over it to make outlines easier to see. Alternatively, as is more common now, they sketched their design directly onto the wood before carving.
  • Then, using precision tools, they'd chisel away any sections they didn't want to see in their print, so the ink only covered the raised areas. (This is also known as relief printing.)
  • When complete, they inked over the finished carving using a brush rather than rolling over it, so they could precisely lay on the colours they wanted, or blend different colours together. The inks they used were made from pigments. 
  • Finally, they pressed a thick sheet of washi paper over the block to transfer the ink colours onto the paper, rubbing over it with a flat, disc-shaped tool called a 'baren'. 
  • You'll probably recognise one of the most famous Japanese woodblock prints of all time – Hokusai's The Great Wave of Kanagawa (shown above). Hokusai created it in 1831, roughly 80 years before Konan was printing his floral masterpieces. 
  • Konan's Famous Flower Pictures

    Peony art print Japanese Woodblock print by Tanigami Konan. Red pink yellow flowers landscape from Flora Botanica Store

    Tanigami Konan was producing his prints at the the tail end of a long-lasting art movement called Ukiyo-e – which, by the late 19th century, was focused on beauty and nature. Interestingly, this period overlapped with the beginning of a new art movement called Shin-hanga, where artists, printers and publishers worked together closely to create art with commercial appeal in Japan and Western influences that would prove popular in other countries too.

    Konan's Picture Album of Western Flowers in Japanese

    Konan's art fell into a popular category of art called Kacho-e, meaning bird-and-flower pictures. His focus was on flowers and he was given a unique opportunity to create a collection of woodblock prints featuring Western flowers.

    Presumably, Tanigami Konan travelled to Europe and perhaps even to England to sketch and record as many native flowers as he could. The breadth of his flower paintings covers spring, summer, autumn and winter blooms, which suggests that he spent a long time in Europe. During his travels, he captured nasturtiums, daffodils, poppies, delphiniums and many more of your favourite garden flowers. 

    So many more, in fact, that he painted 125 floral woodblock prints and filled five whole volumes of an album called Seiyo Soka Tofu (A Picture Album of Western Plants and Flowers), which was published in 1917. There was one album for each season and the fifth album combined and autumn and winter plants.

    The image on the left shows the book's title in Japanese from an original bookplate held by The British Museum.

    It's likely that Konan was the first Japanese artist to observe and record such a comprehensive study of Western flowers. To a Japanese readership, the plants probably appealed as they seemed 'exotic'. To the Western eye, the subject was familiar, but the Japanese woodblock style was in vogue and popular with collectors.

    Shortly after his first publishing success, Konan was asked to produce over 20 large woodblock prints of peony flowers for the annual Imperial Academy Fine Arts Exhibition – an auspicious event, which shows that his work was held in great esteem at a national level. The resulting prints were also later published as two books. One of Konan's colourful peony prints is shown above.

    Great Tit on Paulownia Branch by Ohara Koson example of Japanese art on Flora Botanica Store blog

    Further flower prints by the artist were published in 1923 and 1926 under the title Shokei-Kaki-Cho (A Book of Flower Shapes and Forms).

    Along with contemporaries like Ohara Koson and Hasui Kawase, Konan was probably finding his work in demand, but alas his career was cut short.

    Tanigami Konan died at the age of 49 in 1928 – a celebrated artist in Japan whose life we sadly know little of today.

    However, due to his great skill and the longevity of the inks he hand-painted, his original prints and bookplates still regularly pop up in art auctions and fetch thousands of pounds. They are also treasured by galleries and museums worldwide, so his legacy still lives on.

    (Image: Great Tit on Paulownia Branch – a classic 'birds and flowers' print by fellow shin-hanga artist, Ohara Koson)

    Honouring Tanigami Konan Today

    Water Lily Art Print Trio by Tanigami Konan from Flora Botanica Store

    When we saw Konan's floral woodblock prints, it was love at first sight. They look so fresh and modern, it's hard to believe they're over 100 years old. However, we also noticed that a lot of people reproduce his prints without giving him due credit and perhaps not using the best quality inks or papers to do his art justice. 

    We wanted to put this right, so almost all of our Japanese woodblock art prints by Konan feature his name (except for our water lily print trio – shown above – which looked better without), Plus, they are all printed using water based eco-inks and the giclée print technique, so the colours stay as rich and beautiful as when they were first printed. We also print on museum-standard paper, ensuring the kind of quality Konan would be proud of. 

    If you like your florals bold, eye-catching and with some pared-back Japanese design flair, we have a range of Tanigami Konan flower prints to make your walls look more beautiful than ever. 

    We're just sad that he doesn't have the recognition he deserves and hope this little blog can contribute to putting that right. Want to see all the Tanigami Konan prints we offer? Right this way...

    Thank you for the flowers, Konan!


    The Flora B team xxx










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