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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #50 - Winter 2002
Contents of this Issue:


I'm now on the 'home stretch' of the year's work - busy trying to get everything ready for the exhibition that opens in just a few days, but I can't ignore this Hyakunin Issho newsletter. And can you believe it - here we are with issue number 50! How on earth did I ever find that much to talk about!

And actually, looking back over recent issues I do find it a bit embarrassing how little I've been talking about printmaking. That's easy to correct though, so in this issue we'll redress the imbalance and have a print history lesson! (A fairly painless one though, I think you'll find ...)

We'll also roll along with our usual features: Halifax to Hamura, Collector Profile, and Sadako's Corner, all to make sure you still feel at home. (But don't miss the interesting news in the last section!)

From Halifax to Hamura

This Halifax to Hamura story has been plodding along at quite a slow rate recently - it seems to be taking as long to tell this story as it did to live it! Well this time, we'll have a chance to 'fast forward' a bit ...

At the end of the previous installment I mentioned that Bill was offering me another job with the music company (the fourth time!). I went along to see him but couldn't imagine what he would suggest - I had been a competent employee in the early years, but he knew that I wouldn't want that kind of job again; I hadn't been such a successful branch manager, so that kind of job was out of the question; and it was certainly too early for more computer systems.

What he did offer came as a complete surprise: he was reorganizing the management of the company, and wanted me to work together with him as sort of co-managers. He would vacate the big office in the corner and move out to a compact office in a nearby building, away from the daily noise of the company where he would be freer to concentrate on the 'big picture' (company strategy, major purchasing, dealing with the bankers, etc.). I would take on the day-to-day functions (staff management, overseeing inventories, the store, salesmen, etc.). Hopefully, as we would each be working on things that suited our personalities, we would be able to work effectively. He had no time for the endless detail of management, but I enjoyed organizing things; on the other hand, I myself had absolutely no ability to do things like playing 'chicken' with the bankers, and he excelled at this.

So all of a sudden there I was, heading off to work every morning wearing a tie! There was of course, an endless amount of work to do; the company was quite a flexible place, and we were quite free to explore whatever new ideas we dreamed up. This helped keep things interesting in what was basically a seasonal business that went round and round an annual cycle following the requirements of the school music programs that provided our fundamental market.

But as I now sit here in my home in Ome surrounded by wood chips from the colour blocks that I have just finished carving, and tapping away at this newsletter story, I find it very difficult to look back and 'see' myself there ... Mr. Business Manager. I sat at a very large desk, usually piled with paperwork, listened to samples of music sent from publishers for our consideration, planned routes for the teams of salesmen who travelled around the country renting musical instruments at school meetings, designed displays for the store, checked inventories, maintained the computer system, gave job interviews ... and any number of other tasks that typically end up on the desk of a small business manager.

I certainly didn't realize it at the time, but all these things were to turn out to be excellent training for that future day when I would set out to make my living as a woodblock printmaker. These days I have many friends in the 'print world' and many of them make wonderful prints indeed. But very few are able to make a living from their work as I do. I have no doubt at all that the things I learned about basic business practice there at the music store have provided the foundation for my success in this regard. Even this Hyakunin Issho newsletter is a good example! Bill came over to my office one day with the suggestion that we start a company newsletter to help keep in contact with our school music customers, and the two of us wrote and produced one together a few times each year. Later, when I started making my Hyakunin Isshu prints here in Japan, sending out a newsletter was something that came easily!

I see by looking back in my records though, that printmaking wasn't being ignored. Unlike the situation in Japan, even the manager of a small business in Canada can go home at a reasonable hour in the evening ('high season' excepted!), and I was able to spend many pleasant hours working with the supplies I had brought back from Japan. I sat at one side of our large counter at home carving or printing, and she sat at the other side immersed in her language studies.

The days thus passed by filled with productive and interesting activity, and then one day, somewhere in the middle of my first year on the job, along came some news: the two of us were going to become three ...

Collector Profile

Every three months when newsletter time rolls around again, I start to think about this Collector Profile column, and who to write about. I feel a bit bad about not being able to include everybody in this series, but at a rate of only four stories a year, that's just not possible. I get out my collectors' list and look it over, trying to remember the people and faces, and think about who might agree if I were to ask them to appear here. Of course, many of you I have never met, especially those of you who live too far away to visit me here or at the exhibitions, and in these cases it is difficult to imagine what you are like!

But usually, as I go through the list of names, one of them seems to pop up for attention, and I think "Yes of course! How could I have been ignoring XX-san for so long!" And that is the case this time - Mrs. Yumie Tomita has been collecting my work for nearly ten years now, and indeed, once she started, also asked me for 'back numbers' so that she now has a complete collection of all the prints I have issued. When I called her with my newsletter request, she was somewhat hesitant - as everybody always is! - but did come around to the idea, and Sadako and I met her in a coffee shop near her home in Jiyugaoka, where we ended up spending most of the afternoon talking together.

I had actually expected that I might not find her at home when I phoned, because when I meet her at the exhibition each January, I usually get a chance to hear some recent stories about adventures in other countries; she is an inveterate traveller, and has been since the days when overseas travel was nowhere near as common as it is for us all now. Her collection of expired passports must contain far more stamps than does mine! One interesting thing that I have learned about her travelling is that rather than try to cover a lot of ground on any particular trip, she seems to stay in a specific area, to get to know it at more than a superficial level, unlike most of us when we travel, dashing from one place to the other so that we can say "I've seen that; I've been there ..." Over the years she has developed a network of friends in other countries, and has even found herself travelling with the same foreign tour guides on making return visits to places overseas. She reads and studies a lot before going to any particular place, and I rather suspect that she knows as much about my own country as I do about hers!

But it turned out that this winter is a bit different and she has no plans to head to Europe; she has been a bit unwell recently, and anyway, this year she is too busy taking care of the newest family member - Meru-chan the 4-month old chihuahua who now shares her home.

The photo that accompanies this story was taken at a recent gathering with the members of her family, on the occasion of a party held this past summer to celebrate her entrance to a new decade of life. One has to be careful when writing about a lady's age, but Tomita-san doesn't seem to care about such things - she's just plowing ahead and following her interests. Luckily for me, supporting my printmaking projects is one of these interests! I think that her motivations for doing so are mixed, as is probably the case with most of the collectors; of course she enjoys the 'art' itself, and the idea of preserving the tradition is also part of the equation, but perhaps the major consideration is the cross-cultural aspect - helping this foreigner who is working so deeply in an aspect of Japanese culture. She herself 'digs deeply' when overseas, and can appreciate such behaviour when she sees it.

I very much appreciate this point of view, and am glad to have Tomita-san among the people who receive my print each month. And perhaps next year, when Meru-chan has become old enough to be left with friends for a few weeks (and old enough to allow visitors into the home!), I'll be able to hear about some more interesting travels!

Mixed Roots

I'm certainly not much of a scholar, even when it comes to a topic I feel a great interest in - like woodblock printmaking - and have to confess that when it comes to remembering the reams of 'names and dates' that fill most history books, my eyes glaze over pretty quickly. That should be no surprise to the readers of this newsletter, as I am sure that if you look back through the more than 12 years worth of back issues, you won't find anything on the 'XXX begat YYY' type of art history!

But I do read a lot, and I do keep my eyes open, and I do feel it is important to know 'the big picture' when it comes to the history of my field. Over the years I have been able to 'put 2 + 2 together' and would now like to share with you some interesting ideas about the origins of Japanese printmaking. I think there might be some things here that surprise Japanese readers - traditional printmaking in this country is both less Japanese and yet at the same time more Japanese than one would expect ...

Most discussions of the historical roots of any Japanese tradition start like this: "Our story begins, as these stories all do, in China ...", and the writer then goes on to describe how the particular tradition he is discussing first arose on the Asian mainland and then later made its way through what is now Korea and then over to the Japanese islands. We can think of many Japanese traditions with such Asian roots: the written language, buddhism, pottery making, etc. etc. Printmaking too does seem to have ultimate origins that way, because when we investigate museum collections we find the absolute earliest examples come from China rather than Japan, but the story is not so simple.

The earliest woodblock prints, wherever they were created, were cut with a sharp knife on planks of wood. After the image was formed, it was daubed with ink of some kind, a sheet of paper was placed on top, and the impression was taken by rubbing the back with something (we are talking about a time long before the invention of presses). This very simple 'technology' - wherever it originated - travelled easily and came to be used in many places around the world. One interesting and very important point about this early printing was that unlike sophisticated technologies like pottery or metalsmithing, the tools and technology used in making a print could be basically figured out from looking at the finished product. It was not necessary for experienced craftsmen to actually travel from country to country for the technique to spread - it was enough for the prints and books themselves to travel; local craftsmen could work out the rest for themselves. In other words, the idea of a printed image was the important point - reverse engineering could then produce a technology adequate for the creation of similar products in the new region. The most fabulous example of this process is the Japanese multi-coloured woodblock print as it evolved in the Edo period.

Monochrome printing had been known for centuries in both Japan and China; crude buddhist images are the prints most often cited when looking for early examples and who came first is a matter of scholarly debate. But the earliest prints in colour do seem to have come from China, and some of these are reverently preserved in the British Museum in London.

The idea then seems to have crossed the water to Japan, and in subsequent years we see the beginnings of Japanese colour printmaking. Did Chinese craftsmen cross over to carry the technique to Japan? I believe not ... the two types of print are made with technologies as different as night and day, and I think this is a classic case of reverse engineering - the Japanese saw samples of the prints, and developed their own way of making an equivalent product.

Let me show some fundamental points of difference between the traditional colour prints of the two cultures:

Paper: Chinese paper is thin and flimsy, similar to the delicate stuff used for calligraphy in both cultures. When printing, it is enough to merely touch the paper to the pigmented block; vigourous rubbing is not necessary (nor possible). Printing must be done with dry paper, as it is impossible to handle when moistened; accurate registration is impossible and colours cannot be properly fitted 'between the lines'.

Japanese paper has incredible 'body' and pigment must be driven down into it, not just 'patted' onto the surface. It must be moistened before use by the printmaker, but remains very stable - making precise registration possible.

Printing tools: As only a light pressure is needed because of the flimsy paper, the Chinese tool is a simple block of wood wrapped with horsehair or plant fibres.

For printing on the stronger Japanese paper though, something that would allow a much more vigourous pressure was required, and the tool we now know as the baren was developed for this (more on this below).

Registration: As the Chinese paper was not moistened for printing, the entire stack of paper could be kept out in the 'open air' while printing. The 'colour block' consists simply of small scraps of wood cut in the appropriate shapes, stuck to the surface of the table with a pine resin - there is no 'woodblock' as such. Registration is thus crude indeed, but for the type of image the Chinese were creating, this was not a problem.

But in Japan, as the main impetus behind the development of colour printing was the reproduction of images in the ukiyo-e style - images with strong outlines and flat colour - sharp registration was critical, so the kento system was developed, consisting of a pair of marks carved into each block into which the paper was fitted. Japanese paper also had to be kept in a covered stack to keep it in a properly moistened and stable condition; if the paper dried a little, registration would be impossible.

I've listed these factors separately, but actually they all work simultaneously and inter-relatedly. Full-colour Japanese painting had existed before this period, but no attempts to reproduce coloured paintings by printing had been made until the contact with Chinese colour prints provided a trigger. Once the idea had been planted - that it was possible to make prints in colour - the local craftsmen (over a period of years) developed the tools and techniques to do the job. So, was Japanese colour printing a completely 'home-grown' affair? Well, it seems that this is not quite the case ... the plot thickens!

One of the greatest mysteries of Japanese printmaking is the origin of the printing pad we know as the baren, the circular coil of braided bamboo slivers, backed up by a disk formed from multiple layers of extremely thin paper, all wrapped in a bamboo sheath. Nothing anything like it exists in any other culture, and it was apparently developed here in Japan. But again this seems to be a case of reverse engineering - development of a product based on a concept originating elsewhere. Not China in this case ... but Europe.

Europeans came to Japan during the 16th century, and among them were Jesuit priests from Portugal. These men were intensely interested in spreading their Christian faith, and they brought with them to Kyushu a collection of printing equipment with which they published religious items and rudimentary language training material. The equipment must of course have operated on methods common in Europe at the time, and here is where things get interesting. Type was positioned, ink was applied with a leather dabber, paper put in place, and the back of the paper was then rubbed by hand with a circular tool known as the 'druck-ballen' (this illustration is based on one published in 1420 showing the tool used at that time). 'Ballen' is the German term equivalent to 'ball' as in our English 'ball of the thumb', which is the obvious choice for the part of the hand that would be used in the earliest pre-technical printing days.

This took place in Japan in the late 1500's and early 1600's, up until the Jesuits were expelled by the Tokugawas, and before there is any trace in Japanese records of such a tool as the baren.

It requires no large leap of the imagination to imagine Japanese watching this printing going on, and when trying to recreate what they had seen, developing their own circular printing pad, completely disregarding the Chinese oblong (and clumsy) block of covered wood. What was inside the European 'ballen'? I have no idea, but this obviously would be no barrier; I am sure that many materials were tried initially, and the coiled bamboo turned out to be so effective that it became the standard pattern. And of course, the similarity of the German word 'ballen' and the Japanese term 'baren' needs no explanation ...

Some time ago when I was discussing these things with a Japanese printmaker, he resisted the idea that the Japanese had 'borrowed' the concept for the baren from Europe; he strongly insisted that it was an 'original Japanese' idea. I think such a viewpoint is misplaced; there is no shame involved in picking up a concept from another culture. Ideas from distant lands are grafted together with home-grown notions to create something better than either could be independently. The Japanese planted the 'seeds' they had received, developed an incredibly efficient tool like the baren, then nurtured multi-colour printmaking into a form that grew to stand as one of the greatest achievements of world art - there is no shame involved in that at all!

But then, as somebody born in Europe, I would say that, wouldn't I!

Note: I must acknowledge Mr. Michael Schneider as the source of information on the old German 'Ballen'. Mr. Schneider is an Austrian printmaker who has a special affinity for Japan, having spent four years here in the 1990's studying at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and working with Japanese printmakers. A fine artist ... and a scholar! Thank you Michael!

Sadako's Corner
Twilight Years

It was quite some time ago that the novel 'Twilight Years' - about a senile old man - was in the news. As I was in my 20's at the time, the thought of becoming elderly was just so far off in the distance that I couldn't feel any real empathy with the story; it was just another tale by a famous author. I kept reading with interest, and as I read the humorous episodes of the man's life, I started to think "Do such things happen? Could I become like that?" One time the old man in the story had easily eaten an entire pot full of cooked vegetables in a very short time. I found myself wondering if aging could really cause a person to become unable to tell if their stomach was full.

More than 25 years has passed and I have myself entered my fifties - a time when aging is not just something that happens to other people. If it is indeed something that will happen however I try to avoid it, then it may not be so bad to be 'saved' by senility - to become like a child and be taken care of without feeling any embarrassment or misery. Of course I am trying hard to maintain my health both mentally and physically, so as not to trouble my daughters in the future, but the other day something happened that shocked me very much. On that day I had dinner alone a bit earlier than usual and returned to my desk work. When the regular dinner time came around I walked automatically to the kitchen thinking about what to cook ... and there I found rinsed dishes by the sink! I was puzzled at first and then when I realized what was happening I was aghast! Bringing both hands to my stomach, closing my eyes and 'feeling' inside, I found that I wasn't hungry! I moved dejectedly to the living room with a cup of tea and spent the next few minutes trying to settle down.

When I visited David the following day, he leaned forward with serious looking eyes and said "Yesterday when I started to put my lunch in the microwave I opened the door and found my breakfast still there! It seems I warmed it up and then forgot to eat it ..."

"Were you so wrapped up in your work?"

"Oh no, not at all! I just didn't feel hungry all morning. It seems perhaps I've been eating more than necessary - just feeding my belly automatically."

Oh, if Dave starts to get senile, he'll forget to eat and just fade away while carving!


14th Annual Exhibition : Challenging Long-Lost Skills

Those of you who have attended more than one of the shows know that I usually follow a similar pattern for the exhibition - the ten newest prints are on display together with their accompanying stories, and the rest of the 'back number' prints are on display in their yearly groups. This has worked well, but I think in recent years it has come to be somewhat 'routine', certainly for me, and I suspect for many of you as well. After all, what point is there for a collector to attend the exhibition if you can only see the same things that are on your bookshelf at home!

So for this year, Sadako and I put our heads together to come up with an exhibition system that has a bit more to offer. The fundamental concept is the same - to showcase the newest work - but we have added an entirely new section to the show, one that should add a lot of interest to those who have already seen the prints.

Here's what you will see if you come to the upcoming exhibition:

  • of course the newest ten prints, together with their stories
  • all the back numbers of the Surimono Albums
  • an entirely new section - David's Choice - consisting of 8 interesting and beautiful prints selected from my personal collection. These prints will be presented with stories outlining why I find them 'special'.
  • a small display of highlights of the Hyakunin Isshu series. (all 100 will no longer be displayed)
  • the usual demonstration corner, where I will show the printing process many times each day
  • the usual selection of recent media stories covering my work.

In addition, on the Sunday afternoon during the exhibition, I will be holding a Gallery Talk; the focus will be on the 'David's Choice' prints. These will represent a very wide range of work, not just old ukiyo-e, and I can guarantee that there will be items there that you will never have seen before, and which I think you will find most interesting!

If you live anywhere within reach of Shinjuku, I hope you will consider coming down; I will be in attendance all day every day, and look forward to seeing you there!