New! A moonlit owl presides over this vintage kacho-e print.
Today we’ve got something new for your nest: a vintage Japanese woodcut you’ll want to swoop on. Avian puns aside, this early 20th century image is (last one, promise) owl we could ask for in a Vintage Edition. A stunning moonlit scene, Ohara Koson’s Long-eared owl on bare branch isn’t just an excellent example of an illustrious artistic tradition—it’s an enchanting nocturnal nature moment trembling with enigmatic energy.
A teacher at Tokyo School of Fine Arts, Koson began his block printing practice around the turn of the century. Between 1900 and 1912, he created mostly kacho-e style prints—bird-and-flower depictions characterized by delicate, meticulous line work, washes of color, and elegant spatial arrangements. They also evince a personal and more broadly cultural respect for the beauty of the natural world. Koson would become best known for these images, his narrowly formatted and softly hued earlier work like Long-eared owl being the most sought after.
Looking at Long-eared owl, it’s easy to see why these works won special attention. The composition is exacting and refined, the visual details spare, precise and carefully considered but still rich and complete-feeling. They work together to tell an intimate, compelling story. A crescent moon sets an evening stage, its position in the lower left corner of the frame giving the impression of a high perch in hilly terrain. The silhouetted sliver of tree branch behind the bird has scant foliage, suggesting this scene might be a winter one. Koson’s signature is nestled between the limb in the fore and the branch in the background—real thought has gone into the way his lines divide the visual plane.
The most magnetic point in the print is the owl’s yellow eyes, emphasized by the bright rings of white feathers encircling them. The bird stares straight out, as if to make direct, alarmed eye contact. This seemingly surprised expression is a defining feature of Long-eared Owls, whose extended ear tufts stand at attention and eyebrows angle dramatically. This bird’s squat little body and fluffy plumage may give it a cute countenance, but make no mistake: the Long-eared Owl is a hunter, with acute vision and hearing, and a head that can rotate 270 degrees. It's fine-tuned for snatching prey in total darkness. Like most owls, the Long-eared’s dense feathers make it virtually silent midair, and its compact, stocky frame makes it better suited to brief, powerful flights than other raptors. This body type also enables owls to carry up to three times their body weight. By comparison, hawks (also raptors) can only carry prey around half their weight.
Of course the owl also sets itself apart by hunting at night, which means spotting one in the wild is a trickier task. Its nocturnal nature gives the owl a mysterious air. Have you ever heard an owl in the night? Their eerie calls ring out in the inky blackness, chilling and beautiful. The long-eared owl has a low, breathy hoot, which you might imagine as you gaze at this edition. (Listen here.)
There’s certainly something bewitching about Long-eared owl, something we’re keen to lean into as we near Halloween. In Japanese culture, owls are symbols of fortune, luck, and protection—this notion no doubt permeates Koson’s print. Whether you keep context in mind or let the image wash over you organically, there’s definite magic at play in this edition. Care to let it cast its spell on your walls?