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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #82 - Winter 2010-11
Contents of this Issue:

The weather reports these days show that most of Japan is having a very tough time of it - deep snows, storms, and extreme temperatures. But here in this corner of the Kanto plain, I see nothing but beautifully clear and blue skies day after day. I suppose my turn will come, but for now, I am enjoying this perfect weather for printing!

Our two main stories this issue are a Collector Profile - this time featuring another of the numerous overseas collectors - and a piece that tells about pulling old memories out of a shirt pocket!

In addition to that, we have an update on the current 'Mystique of the Japanese Print' series, and the usual contribution from Sadako. (And that reminds me again that I have been delinquent in not thanking her recently for her wonderful - and very much appreciated! - help in preparing the Japanese versions of these stories.)

I hope you find something of interest in this issue ... For me, it's back to work!

Collector Profile - Mr. Marc Kahn

Due to the nature of my business, I'm never quite sure how to refer to the people to whom I send my prints. Are they 'customers'? Well, because we exchange money for products, I guess that's the technical term, but it really doesn't seem suitable for this situation. I usually use 'collectors' (as I have done with the title of this series), but that sometimes tends to make people seem a bit like children gathering stamps for an album. To use 'patron' or 'sponsor' would sound somewhat pretentious to me, I think; we're no longer in Mozart's day!

But all of this is a bit academic, because all of those words frequently become redundant. My first contact with most of the people taking my prints may be in the neutral form of an email or a written order form, but after a few prints have flown off to this new home, and we've had a bit more contact with each other, a much simpler term usually seems more appropriate - friend.

So today's little story isn't so much introducing you to somebody who is purchasing my prints, as letting you meet one of my friends!

Marc Kahn and I go back just over ten years, when I 'met' him through the activities of an internet group researching the shin-hanga print genre. They had been asking me questions about the craftsmen who made prints in their collections, some of whom were actually still alive, and I had been able to supply information to fill in some of the blanks in their data.

But Marc had more than a casual interest, and as I learned when I got to know him better, he is somewhat of a fanatic about this topic. His particular area of interest is the early days of the shin-hanga movement, and of how it developed out of the earlier ukiyo-e. He has a special affection for one of the first artists working with the medium - the artist we know as Takahashi Shôtei - and has become pretty much the top expert on his life and work. Early on in his studies, Marc realized that the (then new) internet offered tremendous possibilities for research and education, and began building a website where he could publish his findings, with the thought that it could perhaps become a resource for others working in the field.

That website is shotei.com, and his supposition on its usefulness has indeed been confirmed. These days, whenever one reads a recent book about the history or development of the shin-hanga genre, it invariably contains any number of footnotes giving credit to shotei.com for research assistance. Many years ago, back in the early days of western study of ukiyo-e, it was enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable amateurs who were the driving force behind the research, and in our own day it is men like Marc who maintain that tradition.

I used the word 'amateur' simply to indicate that Marc - like me - works independently, and not with the affiliation of an academic institution. He has a normal job (as a software designer) and the print research is conducted in the 'After Five' portion of his day, although in his case, because he works at home and on his own schedule, the exact position of the hands of the clock don't seem to mean much, as my email Inbox can sometimes testify, with the appearance of something from him at what must be 5 in the morning his local time! (Oh, the heavy sacrifices we print researchers make ... slaving over our hot scanners and old catalogues all night!)

Given that the shin-hanga genre is relatively recent history (early 20th century), there are still people alive today who have connections to its roots, and part of Marc's work involves tracking these people down and recording their stories. He was over here in Japan a couple of years ago, visiting the grandson of a Japanese man who ran a print publishing outfit in New York City in the pre-war years. The information flow goes both ways, as Marc is not just gathering information from this kind of source, but can in turn teach them things they would otherwise not have known about their predecessors.

I have to confess that some of the research Marc and his compatriots do - trying to pin down exactly when a particular edition of a print may have been published, for example - is not really of interest to me, but the wider aspect of it - developing an understanding of just how this genre came into being and subsequently matured - very much is. There is a fascinating story still waiting to be told - the story of how some publishers with insight created a 'vision' of how woodblock printmaking could develop, then corralled the resources of designers who were able to put these images down on paper, as well as some very highly skilled craftsmen capable of making those visions come to life, and put them all to work together.

The legacy those men created makes up a very important chapter in the history of 20th century art, or at least it will, once these researchers have put all the pieces together, something they are still quite some way from achieving.

Some years back, when Marc decided to add my prints to his - very extensive - collection, I was of course happy about this, but each time I send off the package containing the most recent print, I feel a little twinge as I do so; this little print of mine is about to take its place in a very substantial collection of Japanese prints that includes the work of all the great 20th century designers. It is very gratifying to have my work accepted in this way, but it is also somewhat unnerving.

Having among my collectors someone with eyes that carefully tuned to every nuance of the best work ever created ... well let's just say that it does help keep me on my toes!

Marc, for your wonderful support for so many years, and for your hard work helping to build up this body of knowledge, thank you!

A Knife with a Message!

Last autumn, I was approached by NHK to see if I would be willing to work with them on the production of a pilot program for a new TV series they were planning - to be called Japanophiles. When I heard details of their proposal, I eagerly agreed to take part; not only were they offering to create what would basically be a mini-documentary on my work (30 minutes long), but the program would be in English, and broadcast to the entire planet, on their NHK World channel. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity!

Before filming began, the main producer for the program came to visit me, not once, not twice, but three times. Each time he was here, we discussed various ideas for the program. I of course (as readers of this newsletter well know) have plenty of ideas for a program like this, so was quite happy to explain this and that about my work, while he made notes and listened. He and his co-workers then put together the outline of a script for the program, which host Peter Barakan and I were to follow.

As the day of the filming approached, the producer called me up and gave me a list of the things he wanted me to bring to the studio. Mainly they needed a selection of my prints for display and a basic 'toolkit' with which I could do a simple demonstration, but he also asked me to bring along another item - something that I had showed him during one of our earlier discussions. This was an old carving knife that had been given to me by the widow of the elderly carver Susumu Ito after he had passed away some years ago. Ito-san had been of great assistance to me in my early years at this craft, and she had known that I would very much appreciate having a few of his tools. I was quite happy for the tool to be part of this program, so before I left the house that morning, I carefully wrapped it and slipped it into my shirt pocket.

Once at the studio, we all got to work; the NHK crew was of course very efficient, and as both Peter and I have a fair amount of experience at this sort of thing, things proceeded smoothly. In order to make our conversation sound natural to the listeners, we certainly didn't try to stick to the script word for word. Peter simply led me in the proper directions with his questions, and we let the words come out naturally. When we were in the final segment of the program, I had just finished replying to a question about my current work by explaining the concepts behind the 'Mystique' series, and paused for a moment, waiting for the next cue about where to take the conversation. At that moment the producer, who was standing in front of us just out of camera range, made a gesture to me - he pointed to his shirt pocket, and then to mine.

I understood his hint, reached into my pocket, and brought out Ito-san's knife. Taking it out of its protective cover, I held it so that the camera could see it clearly, and then - forgetting the prepared script completely - told Peter (and the world) a little story.

I spoke about how each time I look at this tiny knife of Ito-san's I am reminded of how much I do not yet understand about this craft. Stated quite simply, I cannot use this knife. If I were to try cutting with it, it would break instantly - it is so delicate. But how could this be? I am nearly sixty, and have been working in this field for thirty years altogether, more than twenty of them professionally. I have created hundreds of different prints, printed in the many thousands of copies. I am very good at what I do, honestly speaking, one of the best in the world.

I cannot use this knife because I am too young, and still depend too much on physical strength while using my tools. It is the same thing when I pick up my baren to print. I push too hard. I can feel that I am pushing too hard. Any craftsman in any field, or any cook in any kitchen for that matter, knows that good knives and other tools will for the most part, work 'by themselves'.

Now please don't misunderstand. I'm not bowing my head in disgrace because I am 'no good'. I am simply trying to express that I recognize there is still a lot for me to learn. And Ito-san's blade - sharpened to its astonishingly delicate finish - is a perfect way to measure just how much.

Progress for me has always come in stages. After quite some time at one 'level' with no apparent improvement, I suddenly break through to a better stage. This episode of showing that knife to the audience of the program has inspired me to get ready for another such breakthrough. When I begin carving next month's print, I will sharpen my own knife at a bit of a finer angle, something closer to his, and I will try and let the blade take more of the lead when cutting the lines of the design, instead of pushing it where I think it should go.

NHK, thank you for doing two things with this recent program opportunity: for bringing many more people from all over the world into contact with my work, and for reminding me that the learning never stops!

P.S. For those of you with internet access (isn't that everybody now?), the program is available for viewing on my website, along with many other TV programs I have been part of over the years. Visit the 'Woodblock Shimbun' section of the site.

Sadako's Corner

The number of new year cards I receive drops year by year and most that come these days are from long-time friends. We may have little chance to see each other any longer, but reading a few lines once a year saying that they are doing fine makes me feel very calm.

But something was a bit different this year. One correspondent described how she was managing only by coaxing her well-worn body through the days, while another person complained about her recent poor condition. I became quite uneasy! What will I be reading on new year cards from now on? It used to be so nice to read about a child that had been married, or about becoming a grandmother, but will that sort of pleasant news get more and more rare?

Thinking of these unhappy friends living far away, I became gradually more uneasy about my own situation. Soon I will have been using my body for 62 years. I have no specific problems with my body, and it works quite well, with no big 'repairs' needed yet, but there is no question that I should be prepared at some point for a 'breakdown'. If I presume that I will live to the average Japanese life span, three fourths of it is behind me and one fourth remains. I seem to have been under the impression that my future will extend indefinitely, but I now vaguely comprehend the reality - that without doubt things will come to an end at some point.

Please don't misunderstand; I am not being pessimistic about my life. Everybody has these limits, and it is just that I am becoming able to see the reality. As my remaining time decreases, it will become more valuable to me.

Well, I will make the attempt to try and write pleasant topics on my new year cards. Gloomy news would do nothing for my friends but make them feel uncomfortable.

Lastly I would like to tell my dear Mr. White Beard - who is now entering his 60th year, but still bravely continuing to challenge his limits - that I will continue to support you as much as I can. But I recommend that you think about finding a replacement if you start to recognize something funny going on with me!


In the previous issue of this newsletter, I included a story telling you about some woodblocks that I purchased more than 25 years ago. They have been in storage here ever since, as I have never found a good opportunity to use them.

After the story was published, I heard from a few readers with their thoughts and ideas on this topic. The most common response was that I should use them, but a few people offered the opposite view, that they should be preserved.

Those who argued for preservation did so mostly because of the fact that these blocks are literally irreplaceable. As there are no longer any experienced craftsmen working in that tradition, blocks like this will never be prepared again, and these should be kept for their historical interest.

The people who suggested that I use the blocks had a variety of reasons. Some people suggested that it was 'right' that these blocks should be used - that not to do so was kind of an insult to the men who prepared them. Those men were shokunin and it was their job to prepare materials for printmaking. To subvert that would be to dishonor them. I can understand this, through analogy with my own work. If my prints were to end up only in museum drawers, never seen and enjoyed by 'normal' people, what would have been the point of making them?

The most common reason offered though, was the idea that I should use them soon, "while you still can". As you might imagine, I heard this with mixed feelings. Am I getting that old?

Well, I don't think so, but it is undeniable that it is probably not such a great idea to postpone a decision on this question for very much longer.

So I'll keep all these views in mind, and I promise that as the current Mystique series winds down later this year, I'll give serious consideration to how these blocks might best be used to create some special prints.