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Elizabeth Keith (1881(?) 1887-1956)

 
Elizabeth Keith: East Gate, Seoul, woodblock print, 1920
Publisher: Watanabe Shôzaburô; edition approx. 30 impressions (299 x 424 mm)

Elizabeth Keith (pronounced Erizabesu Kīsu in Japanese, エリザベス・キース) was born in Scotland and raised in London. Recently, a search of ancestry records suggests an alternate date of birth (1881 in Banff, Banffshire, not Aberdeenshire) rather than the universally cited 1887. Keith died from complications of diabetes in London in 1956 (being a Christian Scientist, she refused medical intervention until it was too late). There appears to be no record of Keith having had formal training in the arts. In 1915 she joined her sister Elspet Keith-Robertson in Japan and stayed for nine years. It was a fruitful period for Keith as she sketched with pencil and watercolors during travels in Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines.

In 1919 an exhibition in Tokyo of her watercolors on Korean subjects caught the attention of the central figure of the shin hanga movement, the publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô, who soon had his studio craftsmen translate her 'East Gate, Seoul, by Moonlight' into a color woodblock print (see figure above.) It would become one of her most sought-after and admired images. In her 1928 memoir of Japan, Eastern Windows, Keith wrote: "The leading printer [Watanabe], then a stranger to me, came to the exhibition and strongly advised me to have my water-colour of "East Gate, Seoul, by Moonlight", made into a colour-print. He declared that it would be a great success. I took his advice and he was right, for that subject is still the most popular of my prints."

Keith Gate Detail2Keith returned to England in 1924. Even so, Watanabe continued to publish her prints until around 1939, adapting more than 60 warercolors into woodblock prints. She traveled throughout her life, producing studies for prints that would number around 130 designs (most were color woodblock prints, the remainder color etchings). Keith's published prints are consistently professional and always well printed. At her best she combined anecdotal and documentary elements with a highly developed sense of color, compassion for her subjects, and a keen eye for detail.

"East Gate, Seoul, by Moonlight" was issued in an edition of around 30. It is signed in pencil at the lower right and includes the artist's "EK" monogram. It depicts an imposing gate (called Hunginjimun, the "Gate of Uplifting Mercy") in the ancient city wall. The deep, rich blue in this print represents, in their inaugural effort, a notable achievement of the Keith-Watanabe collaboration. In the case of "East Gate," the printers captured a crepuscular atmosphere, featuring nuances of soft moonlight and shadow.

Impressions of "East Gate" vary from more somber, darker blue skies to lighter skies representing early evening. In some impressions the grass on the wall at the lower right of the gate is a strong green. Sprinkled mica was also used in the eaves of the main roof. Keith took special notice of the texture in the stone wall and Watanabe's craftsmen were equal to the task, using the 'baren' (the circular printing pad) to produce faint swirls in the pattern (called baren sujizuri, or "baren traces printing") and blotchy application of the colors (called tatakizuri, printing by tapping with a cloth loaded with pigment) in the stones to mimic the rough surface [see image detail]. It is a print of stillness and timelessness, one of the early masterpieces of shin hanga by a western artist.

Elizabeth Keith: Chinese Matriarch, color etching, 1934
Edition approx. 25 impressions (442 x 347 mm)

After leaving Japan in 1924 (she returned twice, in 1932 and 1936), Keith studied etching techniques in France. She produced etchings as early as 1924 and as late as 1938. Perhaps her finest color etching is shown in the figure immediately above, known as "The Chinese Matriarch." Published in 1934 in an edition of only 25, it was based on a watercolor study from 1919 in which a Buddhist nun posed in a finer coat than the one depicted in the etching. It is signed in pencil in the lower right margin. One is reminded of the celebrated color-print achievements of the impressionist Mary Cassatt, not in technique (Cassatt used soft ground etching, drypoint, and aquatint, and her prints look stylistically more like Japanese woodblock prints), but in both artists' attempts to use European printing techniques and media to create images reminiscent of traditional Japanese printmaking.

In her own way, Keith has successfully adapted the color woodblock method for the color etching process. What remains Western in manner is the volumetric shading of the figure. One of the arresting aspects of the design is the subtle and enigmatic expression of the woman's face. Many who see, in person, impressions of this print are startled by the liveliness of the eyes and wonder at the meaning of the raised eyebrows and the suggestion of a smile. It is a singular achievement.

Works by Elizabeth Keith are held in many public institutions, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; British Museum; Chazen Museum of Art (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Cincinnati Museum of Art; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Freer Gallery of Art (National Musuem of Asian Art, Smithsonian), Washington, DC; Honolulu Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, MA; and USC Pacific Asia Museum. © 2021 by John Fiorillo

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Catalogue of Collections [Modern Prints]: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Tokyo kokuritsu kindai bijutsukan shozô-hin mokuroku, 東京国立近代美術館所蔵品目録). 1993, pp. 280-281, nos. 2708-2716.
  • Keith, Elizabeth: Eastern Windows: An Artist's Notes of Travel in Japan, Hokkaidô, Korea, China, and the Philippines. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928.
  • Keith, Elizabeth & Robertson, Elspet Keith: Old Korea, The Land of the Morning Calm. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928.
  • Miles, Richard: Elizabeth Keith: The Printed Works. Singapore: EastWest Magazine Co., 1991, pp. 12-13, 35 (fig. 28), and 40 (caption only for fig. 44).
  • Stephens, Amy Reigle (ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth-Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection. London: Bamboo Pub., & Leiden, Hotei Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 47-48 (fig. 32) and 214-216 (figs. 298-303).
  • Zentner, Barbara: Elizabeth Keith: The Orient through Western Eyes. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1974.
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