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Paul Binnie (敏弐)


Binnie butterfly bowPaul Binnie (born 1967) is a Scottish artist who studied at Edinburgh University and College of Art from 1985 to 1990. Afterwards, he lived in Paris until 1993, when he also traveled to Tokyo and met the contemporary woodblock printmaker Kenji Seki, from whom he learned much about the techniques of printmaking. Binnie uses 20 or more blocks for some designs, cherry for the keyblock and magnolia for the color blocks. His pigments are those also used for Nihonga ("Japanese-style painting") except for bero-ai ("Berlin blue" or Prussian blue). He prefers torinoko kôzo and nishinouchi washi for his papers. He typically begins printing an edition with about 30-40 prints and then finishes the edition on demand, when he then destroys the blocks.

Binnie, who has an interest in ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world": 浮世絵) and shin hanga (new prints: 新版画), has designed Japanese prints in several genres, blending traditional methods with an individual modern-day style. In recent years he has focused much of his efforts on bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画). In 2005 he began a series called Azuma nishiki bijin awase (A Collection of Eastern Brocade Beauties: 東錦美人合), whose first design was titled Chô Musubi (Butterfly Bow:蝶結び). The design required 27 colours from 14 blocks, and includes gold mica, silver-metallic pigment, and embossing. Moreover, it is printed on the finest quality paper from Iwano Ichibei XIII, a Living National Treasure in Japan.

According to Binnie's website, "On one level, this ... print refers back to the Edo period, but it also has close ties to the Shin-hanga (New Print) movement of the inter-war years, and in particular to the artists Ito Shinsui, Torii Kotondo, Yamakawa Shuho, and so on, whom Binnie admires and collects, and whose traditional views of women engaged in everyday activities are hugely popular with print enthusiasts. In many ways, Binnie is returning to the motifs and atmosphere of the twenties and thirties in his work, and this may be in response to his close study of the prints of this period."

It is interesting to compare an artist's preliminary drawings with the finished print. For Binnie's 1920-nen no moga (Modern girl of 1920: 一九二〇年のモガ), the third design from the 2013 series Hyakunen no hana (Flowers of a hundred years: 百年の華), Binnie explored several design ideas before settling on the final composition. The subject of a moga or modan garu (modern girl, モダンガル) with a cocktail against a deep red ground is a deliberate reference to the well-known shin hanga work, Kindaijisesho no uchi: ichi, Horoyoi (Styles of Contemporary Make-up: no. 1, Tipsy) by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1896-1948). Binnie felt that Kobayakawa Kiyoshi's print amounted to criticism of the moga, who were very controversial in Japan at the time. In response, Binnie created a flattering portrayal of a moga to celebrate their defiance, independence, and modernity. The refinement and exceptional technical brilliance of Binnie's print evoke the elegance of Kobayakawa Kiyoshi's achievement, but in a contemporary idiom.

Binnie: One of several preliminary drawings, 2013 Binnie: Modern girl of 1920, finished print, 2013

The complex design for Binnie's Moga (above right) uses 47 printings (keyblock plus color blocks) and includes embossing, silver metallic pigment, and bands of 23-carat gold leaf on the stems of the glasses. The image size is 437 x 288 mm on paper measuring 468 x 335 mm. In the drawing shown above left (358 x 240 mm on paper measuring 563 x 477 mm), Binnie initially explored portraying the young beauty dressed in a traditional kimono, but with her hair bobbed in the moga style and a cigarette in her left hand. In the final print (above right), the moga — Japan's stand-in for the American "flapper" — is dressed with the accoutrements of a typical "modern girl" of the 1920s, with her bobbed hair, fashionable Western clothing (blind-printed and highlighted with mica) that reveals rather too much skin, and make-up accentuating sultry, smoky eyes. Although she is sitting alone, this moga must be there with a companion, as there are two glasses on the table. Unlike the earlier portrayal, Binnie's young woman seems fit, confident, and poised — and for the moment, at least, neither the Jazz-age Manhattan cocktails nor her unseen partner have loosened this moga from her moorings.

Binnie grand canyon

Landscapes represent another genre of some appeal to Binnie. Perhaps his best known design in that category is his "Cloud Shadows — Grand Canyon" (Gurando Kyanion: グランドキャニオン) from 2007 (see image above). This large-format work, measuring 420 × 600 mm on paper 480 × 670 mm, became Binnie's 100th Japanese print design. The artist had this to say, among other comments: "I wanted to link the print I was making to Yoshida Hiroshi's image of the same area, made in 1925, and to so so, I copied his katakana calligraphy for Grand Canyon and made it the print title, under my own calligraphy for the series title, Meishô to no tabi (Travels with the master: 名匠との旅), obviously in homage to Yoshida. My growing interest in Yoshida's work has meant that I am very interested to travel to places that he depicted in his prints, and so developing the Grand Canyon print in this way seemed to be a logical step. I was very lucky in being able to ask Numabe Shinkichi, one of the master-printers at the Yoshida studio run by Hiroshi's grandson, to do the printing for me, as I was busy on other projects and anyway wanted to have this close connection with the Yoshida tradition." Even so, the look and feel of the famous view is essentially Binnie's modern and individual interpretation of the colors, light, and shadows to be found in the unique landscape.

Binnie JakuemonEarly in his career, Binnie made some excellent portraits of kabuki actors on stage in both woodblock prints and kappaban(stencil prints: かっぱ版). His kappaban also featured (能) actors and tattooed yakuza (gangsters: ヤクザ) from Japan's organized crime clans. Not limiting himself to print media, Binnie has also painted highly detailed portraits of actors from the theater and kabuki.

Binnie sketched from performances in the kabuki theaters, while sometimes using photographs for costume details. One of the artist's notable strengths is his skill in capturing the "color of kabuki," or more specifically, the chromatic potency of the fabrics and face makeup. His draughtsmanship is equally successful, with a fine control of line and form, which when coupled with the vibrant colors and accurate facial likenesses brings Binnie's actor portraits to life.

The print on the right is a portrait of Nakamura Jakuemon IV (1920-2012), one of Japan's officially designated "Living National Treasures" (ningen kokuhô). He received this honor in 1991 after decades of performing as an onnagata, a male actor of woman's roles (女方 or 女形). Here he stars in the dance Fuji musume (The Wisteria Maiden: 藤娘), first performed in 9/1826 at the Nakamura-za, Edo. The dance with nagauta (long song: 長唄) narrative musical accompaniment is a section of a hengemono ("transformation piece": 変化物), a dance play requiring changes in character and costume for a series of brief dances. Fuji musume does not actually have a plot, but rather presents a musume (maiden: 娘) as the spirit of fuji (wisteria: 藤).

Binnie's print is a design from a series titled Kabuki ôkubi-e ("Great portraits from kabuki": 歌舞伎大首絵). The paper sizes in this series (with one exception - see the last print illustrated below) measure slightly more than traditional ôban sheets, approximately 420 x 300cm, with images around 380 x 260 cm in editions of 100. A large green circular seal at the top right sounds out the artist's name "Binnie" with the characters for bin ("clever": 敏) and ni ("two": 弐). A square date seal printed in green at the lower right reads Heisei hachinen ("Eighth year of Heisei," or 1996). Jakuemon is captured in a mie ("display") as Fuji Musume raises over her shoulder a golden fan patterned with the golden rays of Japan's rising sun. The colors and intricate feminine fabric motifs belie the duality of the onnagata — the male presence beneath the female likeness (onnarashisha). Jakuemon, performing well into his seventies here, still possessed the notable skill to portray convincingly a young maiden on the kabuki stage. Yet if we focus on the face or the folds of the neck, we can discern the male actor and marvel at Jakuemon's startling transformation in the role of Fuji musume.

Binnie Ennosuke The print on the left is titled Ichikawa Ennosuke no Kurozuka (Ichikawa Ennosuke in the black tomb: 市川 猿之助の黒塚) from the series Heisei yakusha ôkagami (Great mirror of actors of the Heisei period: 平成役者大鏡). It portrays the contemporary superstar Ichikawa Ennosuke III (born 1939) in his signature piece called Kurozuka ("Black tomb": 黒塚). The play was first performed in 11/1939 at the Tokyo Gekijô and was derived from a play called Adachigahara ("Adachi Moor"). It tells the tale of a demon, disguised as an elderly woman named Iwate, who secretly feeds upon human flesh. When confronted by a visiting priest she cannot dispel his prayers and flees.

The first star of this play was Ennosuke's grandfather, Ennosuke II (1888-1963), who helped define its modern interpretation, with sophisticated stage lighting, contemporary dance, and psychological realism (including a more sympathetic portrayal of the demon as a being who seeks salvation). The current Ennosuke first performed the role of the demon at age twenty-three, shocking the kabuki establishment with his precocious skill.He is an innovative performer of boundless energy and interests, involved in acting, producing, directing, and rewriting kabuki plays. In 1986 he created the first of his "Super Kabuki," which are high-tech, high-energy reworkings of traditional kabuki themes, characterized by what Ennosuke calls "story, speed, and spectacle." The plays of the Super Kabuki have been great successes, all requiring long preparation and great effort to create and perform.

Binnie's print measures 380 x 260 mm on a sheet that is 420 x 300 mm, published in an edition of 100. The face of the demon, brilliantly made up, is stained with blood, its mouth filled with the sanguine evidence of its horrible deeds. Binnie complements this disquieting sight with an impressively detailed drawing of the demon's wig, which is highlighted with silver mica for some of the finely printed hair (see Four Stages of Drawings and Printing, Sixteen Printing Stages), and the Keyblock. The circular red seal at the middle left border reads "Binnie" in a stylized, curved English script, while the accompanying red date seal reads Heisei kyûnen ("Ninth year of Heisei," or 1997).

Binnie Ebizori The print on the right is an impressive large-format print depicting Bandô Tamasaburô V (born 1950) in Seki no to (The barrier gate: 関扉), a dance sequence with Tokiwazu musical narrative accompaniment first performed in 10/1784. The portion of "Jûni-hitoe" in current kabuki repertory was originally titled Tsumoru koi yuki seki no to (Love and deep snow at the mountain barrier: 積恋雪関扉) as part of the play Jûni hitoe Komachi zakura (Twelve-layered Robes: Komachi Cherry Tree: 十二単小町桜). The dance sequence is the only part still performed today. The musical accompaniment is among the most famous in all of kabuki dance repertory.

The main story revolves around the machinations of Sekibei (actually the villain Kuronosuke) who desires to capture military rule over the country and to take revenge upon his rival Munesada. Late in the Seki no to sequence Kuronushi attempts to cut down a cherry tree that seems miraculously to have taken some imperial seals once hidden by Munesada, but he is confronted by the Spirit of the Cherry Tree (actually Sumizome, a courtesan and former lover of Munesada's deceased brother murdered by Kuronushi's retainers). She fights off Kuronushi with only a cherry branch.

The role of Sumizome is played here by Tamasaburô, another of today's superstar actors, of middle age but still a strikingly attractive onnagata. In addition to kabuki, Tamasaburô performs women's roles in Shakespeare, ballets with Western dance companies, leading characters in experimental theater with foreign playwrights and directors, and films such as the widely acclaimed Yasha ga ike ("Demon Pond"). He strives for the reality of "femaleness" in his performances, what he calls a "uniformity of form and feeling," desiring to transcend the limitations of a man playing as a woman. His convincing performances have made him enormously popular among a broad spectrum of audiences.

Binnie's oversize image measures 610 x 430 mm on paper that is 670 x 480 mm. It is also part of the Kabuki okubi-e series mentioned above, but is the only large format print in the set and in a smaller edition of 50. The sheer size of this print attracts attention, and its effect is enhanced by a lavish use of mica tinted with yellow to simulate a gold-leaf screen. The print is titled Ebizori in Japanese script at the upper right and signed Bin-ni in Japanese script, with the round English "Binnie" seal just below along with the date seal reading Heisei kyûnen ("Ninth year of Heisei," or 1997). Tamasaburô is performing an ebizori mie ("prawn bend display"; Binnie has also titled it "Backbend" in English). This mie is used in several koroshiba ("killing scenes") in kabuki. Sumizome curls backward like a prawn (ebi) to escape a huge axe wielded by Sekibei. Her long flowing hair complements the ebizori. Binnie has stylishly captured the delicacy and "female likeness" of Tamasaburô, who expresses a fascinating serenity despite the supreme physical danger she is confronting.

For over three centuries kabuki has periodically recast itself to meet a changing world. Modern kabuki still offers traditional interpretations of ageless stories, but it also presents adapted revivals or modernizations to bring the art form to contemporary audiences. Artists often respond to such revisionism, and Paul Binnie is a most interesting case — a westerner who created impressive portraits of actors, his methods and materials traditional, his sensibility modern. © 2020 by John Fiorillo

Paul Binnie Website.


  • Clark, T. and Ueda: The Actor's Image: Printmakers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, pp. 36-47.
  • Gunji, M.: Kabuki. Tokyo: Kodansha, pp. 78 and 138, plate 22 and 135.
  • Kominz, L.: The Stars Who Created Kabuki: Their Lives, Loves and Legacy. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997, pp. 224-265.
  • Khun, S.: "Veteran Kabuki Actor Looks Back," in: Japan Times, July 9, 1997.
  • Leiter, S.: Kabuki Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 66, 214-214, 255-256, 343-344, and 406.
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