'Kuchi' means 'mouth' in the Japanese language and 'e' stands for picture. But what are 'mouth-pictures'? Well - they were popular foldout frontis pieces for novels or were inserted to magazines from around 1895 to 1915.
Towards the end of the 19th century, reading had become a habit for the common people in Japan. However many could not read very well. The kuchi-e was meant as a visual aid and as a sales promotion at the same time. The people who could not afford to buy books or magazines, rented them in book stores. Among the clients of rental book stores, women were the majority. The predominant magazine for the use of kuchi-e was Bungei Kurabu.
Kuchi-e are original woodblock prints - printed by hand in the tradition of old ukiyo-e. Kuchi-e had to compete with lithographic or photo-mechanical printing techniques and were therefore well executed - sometimes in deluxe printing with such lavish techniques like mica or embossing.
Typical sizes are:
Depending on size, kuchi-e were folded once or twice to fit into the magazine.
Kuchi-e designs were meant to reflect the story of a novel in one image and they should help to sell the product. And beauty sells, but ugliness does not. And - you guess it - what could be more beautiful than women! Thus the main subject were bijin-ga - images of beautiful women. Besides, many of the novels to be illustrated were romantic stories. Today we would call them soap operas.
Most of the great artists of the time made kuchi-e - for a simple reason. It was one of the few possibilities for an artist at that time to achieve a reliable income. Kiyokata Kaburagi is an excellent example. In the beginning of his career he could not have survived financially as a painter.
The traditional fields of occupation for ukiyo-e artists, carvers and printers had diminished at the end of the 19th century due to the success of photography and photo-mechanical printing processes.
Here is a list of typical kuchi-e artists.
Kuchi-e have been neglected by collectors. Consequently they have not been seen frequently on the art market either. But things have changed since the publication of Helen Merritt's book about the subject. Nevertheless kuchi-e are not yet expensive.
These prints offer attractive subjects, are often lavishly printed and usually in good condition. The colors of kuchi prints have neither the problem of fading as the vegetable-dyes of Edo prints do, nor the "bleeding" problems (colors running out - especially the red) of early Meiji prints.
In a nutshell, you get a lot of good print for your bucks.
Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, "Woodblock Kuchi-e Prints", published by University of Hawaii Press in 2000, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-2073-8.
Author: Dieter Wanczura