Ranka-fu or Orchid Woodblock Print

   Ranka-fu Japanese Woodblock Print (detail)
  Ranka-fu Japanese woodblock print (detail)

In 1917, equipped with a desire for adventure, the legendary Japanese beer baron Shotaro Kaga was climbing mountains in Java when he fell in love with orchids. Beer and orchids seems an unlikely match, but over the next fifty years he devoted himself to collecting, growing, and developing new hybrids of this magical flower. In the late 1930s he commissioned the most famous botanical painter in Japan, Ikeda Zuigetsu, to document his collection. Then World War II came.

Zuigetsu Ikeda Woodblock Print, Ranka-fu Orchid Series   
Zuigetsu Ikeda woodblock print, Ranka-fu Orchid Series

Sadly, Zuigetsu did not survive, but Kaga and the paintings did; and after the war he once again made a commission, this time to bring some beauty back to the Japanese people. He carefully chose two craftsmen – a carver, Oiwa Gasendo and a printer, Okura Hanbei - to reproduce Zuigetsu’s paintings as faithfully as possible in the form of wood block prints. The result was a series of famous botanical prints known as “Ranka-fu,” loosely translated as the Genealogy of Orchids. They are a testament to Zuigetsu’s art, Kaga’s dedication, and the unmatched skill of these two men in making wood block prints almost indistinguishable from original watercolor paintings.

Featured is a Ranka-fu print. It depicts one of Kago’s gems, Cypripedium Demeter; but the scientific name does not suggest the beauty of the art. Look closely at this print. It’s hard not to call it a painting, so masterful is the shading and the blending of color. It’s even more remarkable when you consider each color in wood block printing corresponds to a different carved wood block. Perhaps the two men who made it asked themselves the age old question, does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Even if they did their answer ended up altogether different, because in the case of their masterwork, art imitates art!

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