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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #54 - Winter 2003
Contents of this Issue:


Another few months passed ... another turn of the season ... time for another Hyakunin Issho newsletter! I see that the number of issues of this newsletter that have been issued has now passed my age, and thinking about it, I realize that I have been in Japan for one third of my life now!

The years are - as 'they' always told me would happen - flying by faster and ever faster; those Hyakunin Isshu years, when I carved and printed all those poets, seem so far back in time I can hardly remember them! But curiously enough, when I sat down to work on the Essay Corner for this issue, it was to Katsukawa Shunsho and his Hyakunin Isshu that I found myself turning for a topic. This story should properly have been in the first issue of this newsletter, but at that time, I hadn't yet understood enough of what I was seeing ...

We also have a number of our regular features in this issue, including a Sadako's Corner story that made me laugh - again! - when I read it. I don't know if you will have the same reaction though!

Thanks for reading, and I hope this newsletter will provide a pleasant diversion for a few minutes ...

From Halifax to Hamura

After returning from that second extended trip to Japan, I was ready to make some real progress with the printmaking work. I had brought back with me a quantity of 'real' cherry wood, and had also obtained a selection of paper and tools similar to those I had seen the craftsmen using. Just as important as these physical materials though, was a fat little notebook filled with jottings and observations gleaned during the few visits I had been able to make with carvers and printers. I was ready for action!

I was still working at the music shop of course, but unlike the situation here in Japan where it is frequently quite difficult for workers to get out of the building at a reasonable hour in the evening, when the clock rolled around to five thirty or so, we just locked the door and went home - the owner too - so there was plenty of time in the evenings for exploring printmaking, even with the pleasurable family obligations!

The next print I tried making was chosen with two different viewpoints in mind: it was not only to provide me with the challenge of trying a technique I had never attempted before (multi-colour printing within a 'key-block' type of design), but it was also intended to be so attractive to other people that they would want to own one; in other words, I was now thinking about how to start turning this printmaking hobby into a way to make a living.

Viewed from where I stand now - twenty years later - such thoughts were of course premature; the print I made that spring, although based on a beautiful design, was clumsily executed, and indeed, the pigments that I used were so inappropriate for the work that the print started to fade almost as soon as it was finished.

But I am adamantly unashamed of having the thought of offering it for sale. If we always hold back until we are considered to be 'ready', then we will never get anything done. I wasn't 'ready' to sell my handmade guitars, yet the buyers found pleasure in using the ones I sold; I wasn't trained and 'ready' to write computer programs for our business, yet the ones I wrote had a hugely beneficial effect on our cash flows ... Even now, all these years later, looking at the Hokkei surimono reproduction I have just finished making - by the strictest standards held by the old carvers, I am probably not 'ready' to tackle such difficult work, but I am sure that the collectors will still catch their breath when they open the package and see my print ...

The important point, I think, is that at any given moment, as long as you are doing the best that you can do, this is 'enough'; this is all that anyone can ask. The market will then decide whether or not you are 'ready' or if you are trying to move too quickly ...

In the particular case of this print that I had made - a reproduction of a design by Okada Yoshio, the designer we met in this Halifax to Hamura story a few episodes back - the 'market' did indeed make its decision. I wrote to Mr. Okada enclosing a sample of the print, explaining that I would like to publish it, and asking for his approval and terms.

His reply was something of a masterpiece; he told me many years later how he had been torn between conflicting points - he had been repelled by the idea that such a clumsily made print would be sold over his name, yet he had been intrigued by the idea of having his designs published in the way that I proposed, and did not want to discourage me from making further progress. He solved the problem by writing back to me and saying 'yes' to the general idea of my proposal, but named a price that was so high that he knew I would be completely unable to proceed any further.

I don't remember exactly my reaction to this slight setback; I suppose I just put it aside and got to work on the next print, probably thinking to myself "But woodblock prints are so attractive; there must be some way to make a living at this ... I'll figure it out one way or the other!"

I hadn't recalled these events in many years, but now that this all comes back to mind, I wonder if I should perhaps write to Okada-san again, offering to re-make that print for inclusion in one of my Surimono Albums. I wonder if he thinks I'm 'ready'?

Collector Profile

In the earliest days of my printmaking projects, the only way for people to get to know my work was through the annual exhibitions. As we all know though, there are now many new ways of getting information and communicating, and I am no longer restricted to just the January exhibitions to meet new collectors; when I turn my computer on each morning, I never know what I might find in my mailbox! And it was this way that I first heard from Mr. Yutaka Karasawa; a friend of his had recommended my website, and after browsing through the material there, he wrote to me to ask about my work.

There are perhaps some among the readers of this newsletter who would think it strange that a person would choose to purchase woodblock prints without ever having actually seen them, but for Karasawa-san, there is nothing remarkable about this at all. I know from his emails to me that he is the president of the Japanese branch of a global company in the IT field. I don't really understand too much about their work, as it is highly technical and of interest mostly to specialists in the field, but I can see that they specialize in systems that allow a company and its customers to communicate with each other with a variety of diverse systems.

It seems to me the basic idea of such work is to accept information or knowledge from one place, extract the 'core content', and put it into a form understandable by the recipient, so someone like Karasawa-san, who lives and breathes this concept - communicate the core meaning - is well adapted to a simple task like browsing my website, quickly grasping the basic idea underlying my work, and deciding to help support it.

When Sadako and I arrived in his office for a visit one day recently, we were slightly apprehensive - would we be able to understand much of the discussion? After all, it's a fairly common situation when talking with a specialist in any field - even woodblock printmaking! - that the conversation may be difficult for an outsider to follow.

Karasawa-san knew though, that this wasn't to be the same kind of conversation usually held in that office meeting room, and he was prepared! Before I had any chance to start by asking him things, he slapped some photographs down on the desk "What do you think of these?"

'Sky Alleys' by Yukiko Takahashi

I couldn't at first understand what we were looking at; they seemed to be distorted photos of parts of trees. After a minute, and with some explanation from him, we could see more clearly - each photo was a view of a group of trees, taken with the camera pointing straight up between them. And from that angle, one can clearly see thin gaps in the tree canopy, very even, and sometimes absolutely straight, gaps where each tree came close to - but didn't quite touch - its neighbour. I'm sure, after having read my introduction to Karasawa-san in the previous paragraph, you can guess his comment on this! Yes ... even trees find it necessary to communicate with each other ...

It frequently happens that when reporters visit me to get material for a story for their newspaper or magazine, the conversation ends up circling round and around some particular aspect of my work. No matter how much we try to talk about something else, the discussion seems to have a life of its own, and creeps back to the same place. And so it was with our conversation that day; we chatted about this and that: the monthly 'networking' group of which he is a member, the books he has been reading, his friend the tree photographer ... All these, things that seemed to have no overt connection with his work, but which turned out on investigation, to be quite related. And all things that he enjoys thoroughly.

I see ... this woodblock printmaker David too, well understands how anything he seems to get interested in, always ends up right back in the same place.

Isn't it sometimes difficult when you are talking to people who enjoy their work so much!

Essay Corner
In the Manner of ...

At first glance - as you have a quick look at the illustrations on this page - you may feel a bit of 'time slip'; these images look as though they belong in the Hyakunin Isshu print series I made in previous years.

And yes, these pictures are indeed purported to represent poets in that august group. But why do I say 'poets' in plural; don't they all represent the same person? Well ... I suppose that depends on your point of view; let's look a bit deeper!

Here are some raw facts about these four images:

  • 1) the poetess Ono no Komachi, from a set of '36 Poets' illustrations.
  • 2) the poetess Murasaki Shikibu, from the Kano Tanyu collection 'Hyakunin Isshu Ga-cho'.
  • 3) the poetess Sagami, from the same collection.
  • 4) the poetess Ono no Komachi, from a late Edo woodblock book by Okada Tamechika.

But these are all the same picture! Not only is the overall pose the same, but nearly every fold of the kimono and every twist and turn of the hair is identical. What's going on? Has David uncovered a case of rampant plagiarism among this group of artists? I think the word plagiarism - which is such a 'hot' word in Western journalism and academic circles recently - is not particularly appropriate in this case. Plagiarism implies intent to deceive, and I rather doubt that there was any deception involved in the production of these works. The word that we should look at for an explanation is manabu, which a Japanese/English dictionary tells us means 'to study in depth; to learn; to take lessons in'. But right at the bottom of the list of definitions for that word we can also find this: 'follow the example of', and that is the key to the explanation of this case.

Although I do not know any specific details of the history of the artists whose work we are seeing here, I can make some guesses about how they got started as artists. They presumably showed an aptitude for drawing at a fairly young age, and when they became old enough for it, were sent to the studio of an established artist for proper training. 'Proper' training meant learning to draw things in the manner of the master, or more precisely, in the manner of the master's school, because of course everybody in the group drew things in a pretty much identical style - that's what it meant to be part of the group. Students learned the way to draw bamboo, flowers, mountains, and all the rest of the myriad 'words' in the 'vocabulary' of the studio. Of course, among the things they learned was how to draw drapery, the folds of layered kimono like we see in our examples.

To the best of our understanding they did none of these things from 'life'; it wasn't necessary for a young lady in kimono to come in and pose for them - they simply copied from the pattern books and sample pictures that were part of the studio environment. Originality was not considered a virtue - the ability to absorb and reproduce the given style was. The word used to describe the activity those students were engaged in was manabu, used in that sense of learning from existing examples.

We should thus not be so surprised when we see works that at first glance seem to be so derivative. When the job called for an image of a Heian-era woman in multi-layered kimono these men knew exactly what to put down on the paper - they had done it so many times before. Whether the image was supposed to represent Ono no Komachi or Murasaki Shikibu was of no consequence, because the concept of expressing the personality or character of the person being depicted was not part of the equation. Form was everything.

Given this background, we can now understand just how much of a unique and astonishing achievement the set of portraits of the Hyakunin Isshu poets created by Katsukawa Shunsho in the late 1700's really was. Shunsho had received his training in a similar fashion - in the studio of Katsukawa Shunsui - and his work shows that he learned his 'lessons' well; his craftsmanship is beyond reproach and his command of the vocabulary was as strong as any of his contemporaries. But he went a step beyond this, and brought a new aspect to the business of making pictures: he started to show real people.

Of course he hadn't the slightest idea what any of the old poets looked like - they had lived many centuries before him - but that's not the point; when he put brush to paper, the result was living images. This was especially noticeable in his work for the kabuki theatre. Previous to this, images of kabuki actors on the stage had never tried to show the actor, but only a formalized depiction of the role. The faces were just 'cookie cutter' images, and the viewer was able to tell who was being shown only by looking for the crest that was invariably placed somewhere in the picture. Shunsho's actor portraits however, were recognizable as actual people, not just formalized mannequins. (Sharaku was later to carry this idea forward to a remarkable degree, but he had to stand on Shunsho's shoulders to do it.)

So how did this come about? If Shunsho was so well-trained in a tradition extending back for generations, how was he able to see things differently? I think the answer is clear - he was obviously greatly influenced by contact with western portraiture. Our image of Tokugawa-era Japan as being a totally walled-off and isolated society is actually not correct, as educated men in Tokugawa society, especially those living in the major urban centres, had much more access to imported western materials than we commonly understand. I see this when studying old prints from this period that illustrate imported items such as mechanical objects like clocks and telescopes, exotic pets from other countries, and of course books and pictures.

Shunsho was one such man, and it requires no great leap of the imagination to understand his reaction to being exposed to images in which the feelings and personality of the subject were expressed, as they had come to be in portraiture of that day. He didn't become a 'western' painter of course, simply his work was affected by the things he had seen, and subtly transformed.

It is not my intention to denigrate the Japanese artists at all, or to try and prove that they needed 'help' from the West. But in recent years, we have seen such a flood of material about the influence that ukiyo-e had on European art during the years after the 'opening' of Japan, that we tend to forget that ships do sail both ways across oceans, and that ukiyo-e itself had already been influenced to a degree by contact with western forms of art. As will always happen as long as there is communication and contact, certain men in any society - those who are open and ready to listen - will find their creativity enhanced by an infusion of new ideas.

Do I believe that such influences are always positive ones? Absolutely not, and when we follow the story a bit further, and investigate Michelangelo's influence on subsequent generations of artists, both in his own society and around the world, I think we will find a less benign result ... But let's save that one for next time!

Studio Diary

Just at the end of the Studio Diary corner in the previous newsletter, I showed you a photograph of the 'alcove' in the new workroom that I intend to use as a working platform when the room is done. Just after taking that photo, I had to put away the construction tools and get back to the printmaking work, so very little has been done down there since then.

At least very little construction has been done ... but look at this!

I thought it would be interesting to take my benches down there for a little 'test', just for a few minutes, to see if the platform was the correct height, and check what the light was like, etc. etc. Well, more than two months has passed, and I've done all the carving and printing on the two most recent prints down there!

Even though the platform isn't properly finished - there is no proper lighting, and the electricity isn't in place - this alcove turned out to be such a pleasant place to work that I couldn't bring myself to take my benches and tools back upstairs.

Things down there are thus a bit chaotic; there are no proper shelves for tools and supplies, so I have to keep running up and down the stairs when I need things, but that's a small price to pay for the pleasure of sitting in my own room, bathed in the soft north light, printing away with the sound of the river gurgling along below the window.

These days though, it's getting pretty chilly outside day by day though, and as the rest of the room is still completely unfinished and uninsulated, I don't know if it will be possible to keep working down there through January and February. By the time you read this, I might have been chased back upstairs ... we'll see!

Sadako's Corner

The other day I happened to get on a train during the rush hour. I had a pocket book in my bag as usual but ended up not reading it because it was so much fun observing the people around me!

A woman who seemed to be in her 30's was standing in front of me, reading a book while hanging on to the strap:

"What a charming nape! If I had such a nice one I would have my hair cut short like that. Oh, she has a ring on her index finger! Then she must be single and a career woman. She looks nice in that jacket; a very sophisticated taste ..."

And the man sitting just across from me:

"A decent appearance - classical handsome Japanese features. A good Burberry coat... oh, a button on the right shoulder is broken; it's half gone! Does his wife skimp on the household chores? Or maybe she is also working and very busy. No, no ... that fixing buttons is woman's work is an old-fashioned way of thinking!"

I realized though, that someone else might be looking at me, doing exactly the same thing!

"She doesn't dye her white hair, doesn't wear any make up; how could she be so lazy! She doesn't look like a commuter; look at that worn-out shoulder bag, ... she looks quite old ... what on earth does she do?"

We need some people to be a bit different. Among men, having somebody like David helps to make things interesting. But what 'imaginary' conversations go on when people see him?

Step back to one day seven years ago when the two of us had lunch at a nice Italian restaurant. We were quite satisfied with the tasty dishes and were in a good mood as we walked to the cashier. There was a couple already there, so David stood behind them to wait his turn, while I stepped outside to wait for him. A moment later the couple finished paying their bill and came out the door. They stopped just in front of me and burst into laughter! It was some moments until they could manage to breath and then the boy said to his partner "That foreigner was something from a horror movie, wasn't he!" They looked at each other, laughed loudly and skipped away. I wanted to yell after them "Hey, I am with him!" but couldn't do anything as I was just struck dumb for a second. I then burst into such laughter that tears came to my eyes; I bent over laughing, and couldn't stop.

David then walked out of the restaurant with a happy smile but was bewildered when he saw my tears. He instantly turned pale. "Sadako, what's wrong!?" Shaking with laughter I couldn't utter a word for a minute or so, but when I finally managed to say "I am not crying!" and told David the story he also caught the contagious laughter!


On the back page of the previous newsletter, when discussing the upcoming exhibition plans, I wrote:

"... a good plan for next year, one that will allow me to get caught up with the Album schedule, and which should also provide an interesting 'interlude' for the collectors. The plans aren't completely finalized yet ..."

In between carving and printing work on the remaining prints in the current Surimono Album, I have been working on this plan, and have pretty much got things finalized. I don't want to 'leak' things prematurely, but it's best if I let the collectors know what sort of thing to expect! So here's the timetable:

  • Surimono Album #5
    As you all know, the current Surimono Album will not be finished in time for the January exhibition. Seven or eight prints will be on display, but the remaining ones - to fill out the set of ten - will be completed and sent to you in the early months of 2004, hopefully by the end of March.

  • Hyakunin Isshu
    The Hyakunin Isshu reprinting that I began a few years ago has been moving along slowly and steadily, and is now nearly 90% done; the last ten prints or so will be issued during the first half of 2004, and everybody who wants to 'complete' their sets should be able to do so during this time.

  • New Series
    Starting in the spring, and running until the end of 2004, I will be making a set of four prints on a certain theme (seasonally organized), issuing them at about two-month intervals. They will be larger in size than my current Surimono Album prints, and thus somewhat more expensive, but as there will only be four of them, and as they will be sent to collectors at wider intervals, I hope this will not be a major disadvantage.

  • Surimono Album #6
    I have far from exhausted the possibilities inherent in my Surimono Albums. I feel they provide a perfect match of the diverse requirements of both collectors and producer: there is endless variety in theme and topic, excellent chance for coverage of various historical periods, and unceasing opportunity for technical growth and challenge. If I live to be a hundred (and remain capable of making prints right up until the end!) I cannot run out of designs to include in these albums. I would like to begin Surimono Album #6 in early 2005. (It is worth adding: please don't be put off by the fact that the new series mentioned a moment ago will be 'somewhat more expensive' - this will apply only to that particular series; Surimono Album #6 will be issued at the 'traditional' price of 6,000 yen per print.)

Plans ... plans ... how many of them will come to fruition?!