One thing that seems to keep connoisseurs fascinated with classic woodblock prints is the maze-like path to understanding. Incredibly, despite
a century of serious scholarship on three continents, many questions surrounding those delicate sheets of paper from Edo-period Japan are still
open to speculation, and collectors can expect uncertainties around almost any corner.
A case in point is the pair of prints illustrated here, two editions of a half-size bust portrait of a kabuki actor acquired in the infancy of
my collecting. While the designer (the popular and prolific Osaka artist Hirosada) and date (the late 1840s, a time when actors' names were left
off prints to stay clear of sumptuary laws) were easy to determine, I was more curious about something else. It is the color print to which the
more serious market value is always attached, but black and white versions are infinitely rarer. What was the function of these key block prints?
Who used them? And where do they fall in the chronology of an edition?
I reasoned (naively) that I only had to ask the experts, and that's when the fun began. The first scholar I visited surmised such black and whites
were produced solely for in-house use: for publisher stock books, or perhaps for the artist to write in color preferences. The second showed evidence
that they were made for women to sew fabric on (a charming handicraft in Japan), and also for children to practice coloring with. The third talked
about how publishers may have catered to the low end of the market with these prints, and the fourth — here I was getting to the bottom of the
local academic barrel — felt that they were used by actors as free hand-outs for backstage johnnies.