Paintings vs Lithographs

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For many years, I’ve had what I thought were my grandfather’s paintings on my wall. Since I never knew my grandfather, it was nice to have something of his, something to give me some sense of family connection.

The paintings – there are five of them – each have a vellum sheet of Japanese calligraphy that I’ve always assumed described the paintings. According to family lore, the calligraphy was likely done by Mr. Obata, a teacher and friend of my grandfather’s. Some of the calligraphy looked like corrections, which also made sense because Mr. Obata taught art at UC Berkeley both before and after WWII.

But nobody in the family could read the calligraphy, and after many many years, curiosity got the better of me, and so I set out to have the paintings – the calligraphy and the artist signature blocks – translated.

It wasn’t easy. Translator after translator turned me down. “Almost no one reads that sort of old fashioned Japanese anymore,” wrote one. “You’ll need a specialist.” It took several months, but I finally located an art translator, a specialist, who agreed to give it a try.

The first red flag came right away. The artist signatures were not our family’s last name, nor were they Mr. Obata’s. In fact,  the calligraphy was unsigned and could not be attributed to Obata.

It took some time, but the translator finally found the answer. The artist was not my grandfather. Rather, the artist was Suiun Komuro, a Nanga (“literati syle”) painter who also published a monthly art magazine to teach others the style. Within the magazine, subscribers could find a lithographic print with a vellum overlay on which Suiun Komuro wrote detailed instructions in red calligraphy on how to paint the subject of the lithograph. A quick Google search on the name brought up 44 art images by the artist – including images of the 5 prints that I have hanging on my wall.

What it means is that I have a bunch of framed magazine clippings on my wall. They are nice magazine clippings, but they have absolutely nothing to do with my grandfather.

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