Photography

Masatoshi Hanei

Honoka Masuda

The Iwano Heizaburou mill

in Echizen stands at the top of fine art paper-making in Japan. Their influence on the history of classical Japanese painting has been immense and the mill continues to supply historic art commissions.

“Echizen Paper-making”  Tomita Keisen, circa 1926, Fukui Prefectural Museum

“As you know, unfortunately there is hardly an artist who can be taken seriously just by working on paper. It’s just that people expect paintings to be on silk.”

Tomita Keisen writing to Iwano Heizaburou in 1923

Part of letter from Tomita Keisen to Iwano Heizaburou, 1923   Courtesy of the Estate of Iwano Heizaburou

Such was the prevailing sentiment towards paper a century ago, when silk supported nearly all Japanese painting.

However, by as early as 1926, barely three years after the letter was written in response to his sheets being sent to the painter, Heizaburou Iwano completed the prototype for KUMOHADA-MASHI,  a successful modern revival of strong hemp-based paper from the 8th century. The paper have come to replace virtually all other supporting medium in Japanese painting.

1926   Courtesy of the Estate of Iwano Heizaburou

Coinciding in the same year was the historic production of Okafuto-gami, then the world’s largest handmade sheet measuring over 5m wide, for a private commission by Yokoyama Taikan and Shimomura Kanzan, two of the country’s most prominent painters at the time.

Ever since, the mill has continued to be the worlds’ leading handcraft mill for bespoke large format fine art papers.

The mill operates much the same way over a century later.  Making of fine art papers are marked by intensive labour. After boiling to soften, every single one of the discoloured fibres has to be manually removed to achieve a plain surface. There is no way of automating this part of the process.

Winter is traditionally the season of papermaking as the low temperature keeps the materials fresh throughout. But it is also the period in which the craft becomes physically demanding.

Horyuji-Kondo Mural Restoration

was a project to reconstruct the murals in Horyuji temple’s Kondo main hall – the worlds’ oldest wooden building and the World Heritage site- following extensive damage caused by fire in 1949.

The murals are one of very few examples in Japan of a direct aesthetic influence from India, and one of the oldest artworks in the country.

Top painters in the field of classical painting at the time were called in for the project headed by Yasuda Yukihiko and Maeda Seison, both of whom have strong ties to the mill.

The large-scale undertaking is one of the many historic public commissions for which the mill provided bespoke papers. Other projects include the first major restoration of Katsura Imperial Villa in the late 1970s.

(Above) Immediately after the fire in 1949

(Left) Maeda Seison working with Moriya, Courtesy of Benrido, Kyoto

(Below) Horyuji, Kondo

The production was revised under the current head Makiko Iwano to respond to today’s demand for more natural means of processing materials. The revised Kumohada-mashi has increased strength, and the cleaner production ensures a subtle natural colour that becomes brighter over time through exposures to light. Each sheet is made by experienced craftsmen and women to a standard weight.

The mill is one of the very few in Japan equipped with large format solid ginkgo drying boards. Fine Ginkgo grains ensure papers are free of marks and gives such a sharp -yet very human- surface which is the hall mark of their papers.