Noda Tetsuya’s Diary
of Contemporary Japanese Prints
"I create prints based on photographs that I have taken, titling each of them Diary. They are highly personal, featuring just the scenes and people around me, so I am not sure how much they might mean to others, or if they will generate a sense of empathy. But as a fellow human being, I believe my life is not so dissimilar. Perhaps my works resonate with others. My goal is to represent the reality of my life through my work. It is also my hope to leave a slice of the era in which I have lived, however small, to future generations."
Noda Tetsuya’s Diary of Contemporary Japanese Prints is an exhibition of autobiographic work by the celebrated Japanese artist. Interested in photography from an early age and educated at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Noda first specialized in painting before turning to printmaking. Influenced by his upbringing in post-war Japan, and the ideological, social, economic and artistic transformations of the era, Noda started to build a diary of prints in the 1960s recording his daily life, mastering the challenge of documenting the reality around him in both true and artistic fashion.
Noda’s work is technically highly accomplished and thematically exceedingly personal. Known for being a representative of the long tradition of printmaking in Japan, and as an innovator for the further development of the long-practiced genre, Noda’s work combines photography, traditional Japanese woodblock printing, mimeograph duplication and silkscreen printing in a self-invented and precisely controlled process of layering. The resulting style is evocative of a rare blending of techniques that are illustrative of conventional woodblock and more contemporary mimeograph-silkscreen printing. Thematically, Noda represents landscapes, domestic scenes and still-lifes, as well as—and more importantly—portraits of himself, family and friends, which are also markers of specific moments in time, such as the more recent diary illustrations for March 13th and May 10th, 2020, created during the pandemic.
Works presented in this exhibition offer unparalleled insights into the artist’s hand skills and color palette, as well as his intense personal feelings and trademark humility. Few printmakers are quite as exploratory in terms of their technique and so precise in their choice of depicted subjects. Noda Tetsuya’s Diary of Contemporary Prints represents the long-accumulated knowledge of a well-practiced artform by one of Japan’s best-established artists, while also documenting—in true diary fashion—events that have shaped his personal life, while also standing for the collective experience of Noda’s generation and the societal change witnessed over the last several decades. In order to bring awareness of Noda’s artistic achievements, this publication’s bilingual texts and catalogue section give access to his place in art history, and to the phenomenon of the tradition-infused Japanese culture that he furthers daily with his art practice.
A Creative Fusion of Media
1. Photography and Drawing
Noda uses photography as the first step in his artmaking process. He captures scenes from his daily life while maintaining his sense of idiosyncratic design. For many years he used a Nikon FM, before finally switching to a digital format. Although he finds the camera to be an appropriate medium for representing the spirit of a moment, he is aware that its mechanical properties run the risk of eclipsing subjective expression: “A camera takes in everything, making it difficult to mobilize one’s sensibility.” He first determines the desired size of his artwork before using an enlarger to print the film onto a matte photographic paper. For many years he preferred a type of photographic paper called projection paper that was manufactured by Fujifilm, but it has been discontinued. A single sheet of paper is sometimes not large enough, in which case he divides the image into sections and prints onto several pieces. He then aligns and assembles the pieces back into the image before deciding how to alter the photograph. As an artistic intervention, he insists on altering and drawing on the photographs by hand.
After deciding on the areas of the image that he wants to print with a woodblock, he cuts the areas out from the paper. These sections generally tend to be the background, or an area where he wants to add color. He often cuts sections from various images, pasting them together in a collage format in order to achieve his imagined and intended vision. He then directly draws on and retouches the image substantially. He usually draws with pencil, softly adding strokes and shading. He also smudges the drawing with his fingers to create an effect reminiscent of sketching with pencil, and paints over the image with an opaque, white paint such as titanium white or zinc white to hide unwanted areas or to enhance the brushstrokes. Noda considers the use of collage and drawing by hand crucial for expressing his artistic subjectivity. He likens this to creating distinctive flavors and seasoning when cooking.
The next step in the process is the carving of the woodblock. Noda lays a piece of matte film over the photographic paper, tracing along the areas that were cut out earlier. He then re-traces the outlines on the wood so that he knows where to carve. He uses plywood faced with shina [Japanese lime], which is readily available in Japan. It does not shrink or crack, making it a highly suitable material for woodblock printing. He carves the wood by himself with traditional tools, carving and chiseling along the outlines with great technical finesse. Multiple blocks of wood might have to be carved to allow for the addition of various colors on the print, or to serve as different sections in a large print. He also cuts registration marks into the wood, known as kentō [pass mark]. This is a traditional ukiyo-e technique of marking used to ensure the accurate placement of paper on different blocks of wood so as to achieve the proper alignment and overlapping of colors.
Noda applies paint on the woodblock with traditional Japanese woodblock printing techniques and tools, creating gradations and variations. He uses water-based pigments, which penetrate deeply into the Japanese paper. This explains why the colors printed by woodblock show through the back of Noda’s prints. He brushes strips of pigment on the woodblock with a hakobi [a small brush made of shreds of bamboo sheath to hold and apply pigment], before spreading and evening out the pigment with a burashi [brush]. The brush is moved vertically or horizontally on the woodblock to help control gradations and transparency. He also dampens and dabs specific carved areas with a rolled wet cloth to achieve a faded effect.
Before printing the woodblock image, Noda prepares and sizes the paper. He uses Japanese paper made of kōzo [paper mulberry], which is readily available in Japan and commonly used for woodblock printing. He primarily selects paper made in Ogawa, Saitama prefecture, a famous center of washi production. He applies a traditional solution known as dōsa [alum sand], which is created by boiling animal glue in stick form and alum powder in water. This solution acts as a stabilizing agent, facilitating the adhesion of pigment to the paper.
After the paper dries, Noda sprays on water or places the sheet of paper between dampened newspaper to help make it soft and moist enough for printing. He then lays the paper on the woodblock with the pigments before rubbing the back of the paper with a baren. A few drops of camellia oil are occasionally added to the baren to assist in sliding across the paper. He then adjusts the various amounts of pigment on the woodblock and prints the image several times before deciding on the desired combination and intensity. One of the challenges of woodblock printing is controlling the humidity level; he has found the ideal humidity in his atelier to be around 70%.
Noda retouching and drawing on the photographic image
2. Woodblock Carving and Printing
Noda brushing and dabbing pigment on the carved woodblock
Noda transferring pigment from the woodblock to Japanese paper
3. Mimeograph Duplication
and Mimeograph Culture
The next step in the process is the use of the mimeograph machine. Noda discovered the mimeograph at an elementary school in the 1960s. The mimeograph is a duplicating device that connotes a global history of revolutionary printing and information transmission since the late 19th century, until its replacement by photocopiers and other computer programs. Initially a name trademarked by Albert Blake Dick, owner of the A.B. Dick Company of Chicago, who contributed to the popularity of the technology in the US, mimeograph is now a generic term that encompasses a variety of similar devices and machines manufactured by different companies around the world. The origin of the mimeograph machine can be traced back to the invention of the electric pen by Thomas Edison. This pen bore holes in paper by moving a fine needle up and down with a motor as the operator wrote on the paper, creating a perforated stencil. Ink was then pressed through the stencil holes with a roller to make quick copies of the original. The invention heralded a series of patents, evolvements and the rapid automatization of technology in the US and Europe.
The development of the mimeograph in Japan is generally attributed to Horii Shinjiro and his son in the last decade of the 19th century. As a local government official in Shiga prefecture, Horii was fed up with the laborious and tedious amount of paperwork. He dedicated himself to streamlining and devising a convenient duplicating process, so as to spread information easily and to allow more time to contribute to the country. He travelled to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where he was inspired by Edison’s design. Over the following years, he and his son created the archetypal Japanese version of the mimeograph, also known as tōshaban or gariban in Japanese. This was a manually-operated, wooden, flatbed single-screen duplicator with a hinge. The stencil is made by incising an image onto wax paper and then laying down a piece of iron file using a metal stylus. The perforations in the wax paper are formed by the iron filings underneath. This was a simple, low-cost process that quickly spread throughout the country, from government institutions to the general population.
The technology in Japan was later mechanized in various incarnations, supplemented by the overseas imports of different mimeographs, such as the rotary Gestetner model with two rotating drums. Even so, the manual Japanese archetype remained in popular use. By the 1960s, mimeograph devices were commonly found in various sectors of Japanese society, particularly in schools: “The Japanese memories of the mimeograph are directly associated with schools. . . . Most of the paper materials seen by students, reports and data, and clerical paperwork were made by mimeographs operated manually or by rotating drums.”
Likewise, Noda’s discovery of the mimeograph at an elementary school corresponds with his vision of deriving artistic ideas from his immediate surroundings. A friend teaching at the school suggested that he should try out the mimeograph, as he had been looking for ways to convert his photographs into a stencil. Noda explored the technology by experimenting with the mimeograph machine in the staffroom at the Tokyo University of the Arts. The specific version of mimeograph technology that Noda has been using is an electro-stencil machine manufactured by the Tokyo Aircraft Instrument Co., Ltd, which consists of a rotating drum. Noda places his altered or/and collaged image on the photographic paper around the left side of the drum. He then places a piece of vinyl film around the right side of the drum. When the drum rotates, its optical head detects the ink on the photographic paper and burns holes in the vinyl film with an electric spark, transforming the vinyl film into a stencil based on the image from the photographic paper. The holes are extremely fine. Noda must adjust the various buttons on the machine to achieve the desired contrast in the stencil. In contrast to ordinary silkscreen printing that gives a smooth impression, the electric mimeograph contributes to a warm and rough-like texture, punctuated by very fine ink dots like newsprint. Noda’s work appears as if it is simultaneously pulsating with life and dissolving into time.
Noda working with a mimeograph machine
Very fine holes in a stencil
4. Silkscreen Printing
The final process concerns printing the image through the vinyl stencil onto a sheet of Japanese paper, which earlier had been printed with a woodblock. Noda fastens the stencil onto a flatbed screen and lays the Japanese paper below. He then prepares the pigments for printing, using mimeograph inks. Noda has found that water-based pigments easily clog the perforations in the stencil as they dry too quickly, whereas oil-based pigments are too viscous to pass through the perforations. Noda uses a specially formulated and neutral emulsion ink that is soft and syrupy, and able to slip through the perforations onto a Japanese paper without clogging. He presses the ink through the stencil onto the paper with a roller, routinely adjusting the colors with each pass and printing several times when necessary. One of the primary challenges for Noda continues to be finding a roller of suitable flexibility to push the ink. In the case of larger prints, Noda makes each smaller section individually and then pastes them together with barely noticeable joints.
Noda printing with mimeograph inks and a roller
Final result (Diary: Aug. 10th ’09)
Cherry tomatoes in the home garden in Kashiwa picked by Noda’s wife Dorit Bartur
Noda’s aesthetic vision
Noda’s original combination of woodblock and mimeograph printing is the result of various experiments in pursuit of a soft and mellow effect. He originally tried silkscreen printing with oil paint on canvas before discovering and perfecting the optimal compatibility between woodblock pigments and mimeograph inks on Japanese paper. It is a complex and highly modulated process where Noda must balance and coordinate the different textures of the pigments and ink, the absorbency of the Japanese paper, the size of the stencil holes, and the precise force necessary to push ink through the stencil. Noda’s overlapping of the materiality of the mimeograph inks over the water-based woodblock pigments sinking into the Japanese paper creates a visual effect like “tarnished silver.” More specifically, the effect is tranquil and evocative, tinged with a sense of hazy ephemerality conveyed by painterly pencil strokes and finger smudging. Noda’s works are both realistic and illusionistic, static and organic, deftly maneuvering the liminal space between photography and drawing through the form of a carefully manipulated and layered print that alludes to the Japanese tradition of woodblock printing and the once ubiquitous mimeograph culture.
In line with his usual approach in featuring his life and surroundings as subject matter, Noda similarly uses the materials and inspiration closest to him in order to conceive and realize his novel techniques. The type of woodblock, Japanese paper, vinyl film, mimeograph machine and pigments are all sourced nearby within Japan.
Noda Tetsuya’s Visual Autobiography: An Artistic Journey
Spanning over 50 Years
Noda Tetsuya’s works centre on vignettes from his daily life that are created through a novel technique of woodblock and mimeograph-silkscreen printing. The prolific series is inextricably linked to the permutations of his life over the past 50 years, and together forms a visual autobiography with visual depth and emotional resonance.
Noda’s early prints in the late 1960s record the blossoming romance between Noda and Dorit and their ensuing marriage, interspersed by trips to the US and Israel. The early portraits of Dorit often portray her sitting solemnly on a chair with a blooming rose on her lap, looking up with a gaze of hope and longing, as in Diary: July 19th ’69.
Diary: July 19th ’69
Noda converted to Judaism in order to marry Dorit, studying with rabbis at the Jewish Community Centre Synagogue in Tokyo. A couple of prints showcase this process, such as Diary: June 11th ’71 (b), through the use of bright colours and Noda’s profile curiously occupying the right corner of the foreground. Noda and Dorit’s transition into adulthood is also layered with an uncertainty for the future, loss of loved ones and becoming parents. Diary: July 8th ’71 shows the empty silhouette of Noda’s backside juxtaposed against the Shiranui Sea near his hometown, and an antique clock that he found for his parents. They suggest a subtle sense of melancholy as Noda appears to float in limbo between his own past and the inexorable current of time. Empty silhouettes are also found in Diary: Oct. 16th ’71, which documents Dorit’s departure from her family in Japan, having left from the embassy’s living room. The unidentifiable figure at the centre of the print is Dorit.
Diary: June 11th ’71 (b)
Diary: July 8th ’71
Diary: Oct. 16th ’71
The 1970s saw the birth of their elder son Izaya and daughter Rika, and so Noda’s oeuvre is dominated by a series of candid and intimate portraits of their children. The portraits are executed with tenderness, humour and respect, distilling the complex journey of parenting and the children’s emerging individual personalities (Diary: Aug. 10th ’77, Diary: Feb 2nd ’78, Diary: Feb 10th ’78, Diary: March 31st ’78, Diary: June 24th ’78 and Diary: Aug. 2nd ’79(b)).
Diary: Aug. 10th ’77
Diary: Feb. 10th ’78
Diary: Feb. 2nd ’78
Diary: March 31st ’78
Diary: June 24th ’78
Diary: Aug. 2nd ’79 (b)
In 1987, Noda and his family moved from Ogikubo, Tokyo, to a larger house with an atelier at Kashiwa, Chiba, where Noda and Dorit still live today. The landscapes and neighbourhood of Kashiwa have since become a common visual motif in Noda’s works, whereas his children appear less frequently, especially from the late 1990s, when they themselves moved into adulthood. In 2003, Noda was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon by the Government of Japan, a prestigious national honour bestowed on individuals with impressive achievements in their respective fields. At the time, he was an associate professor at his alma mater in the Faculty of Art, Tokyo University of the Arts, where he had been teaching since the 1970s. His students in printmaking celebrated with Noda by presenting him a certificate and medal carved in plywood featuring a chrysanthemum. Noda eventually retired from the university as Professor Emeritus in 2007.
As Noda turned 60 in the 2000s, his prints continued to mature, with an increasing sense of contemplative tranquility. They reveal a quiet but active life of gardening and growing vegetables like cherry tomatoes, watermelons and artichokes at his home in Kashiwa. Other prints capture Noda’s travels, as exhibitions of his works have been held in museums and galleries around the world. In 2014, Noda had a retrospective show at the British Museum. He documented his connection to the museum with several prints, including the cleverly oblique Diary: Jan. 22nd ’14. The image features a tote bag with a scene from Kitagawa Utamaro’s Poem of the Pillow, a woodblock series currently held by the museum. The museum’s name is visible on a card that is subtly protruding from a corner of the bag, supported by pink tulips. The bag and tulips were a gift from curator Tim Clark during his visit to Noda’s home and atelier in Kashiwa.
Diary: Jan. 22nd ’14
Noda’s latest prints give a glimpse of his daughter’s current life, who is now married in New York with two daughters (Diary: March 20th ’19, in New York). Two prints in 2020 also encapsulate the current era by acting as a powerfully relatable memento of the COVID-19 pandemic (Diary: March 13th ’20 & Diary: May 10th ’20). The first portrays the masked couple with their hands full of masks that had been sent to them by concerned friends.
Diary: March 20th ’19
Diary: March 13th ’20
Diary: May 10th ’20
Neither this exhibition, nor the accompanying publication, would have been possible without the generosity of Noda Tetsuya, who graciously provided information along the way about his techniques and artistic and personal path; and Steven Co’s generosity, in allowing UMAG to select from his vast collection of Noda Tetsuya’s work. We thank, the Hong Kong University Museum Society and HKU’s Endowment for Music and Fine Arts Fund for their financial support, and express our gratitude to the Japanese Consulate General of Hong Kong and to the Japanese Government for sponsorship of our project with funds from the Japan Foundation.