Young Girl

With this - the fourth print in our set - we arrive at the fundamental core of the traditional Japanese print, the line. This entrancing image of a young girl was created by the designer Kawabata Gyokusho, and was published in Meiji 33 (1900). The ‘tool’ that he used to draw his picture was of course the fude, the calligraphy brush, and even though the sheet of paper you are looking at is a ‘double translation’ of his original - first by the Meiji carver who reproduced his original, and then again more than a hundred years later by me - we can clearly see every nuance of his creation, in the way that the lines swell and breathe as his brush moves across the paper.

This is the wonderful power inherent in the Japanese technique, that when necessary, it can be totally self-effacing, standing aside to let the viewer see the original designer’s conception directly, as though no translation had taken place at all. My job in creating this print was analogous to that of the black-clothed men who manipulate bunraku puppets. They do their work in clear view on stage, but - if they are very skillful - the audience will never see them.

This is in absolute contrast to common traditions of printmaking in the west, where the effectiveness of a woodblock print is judged by how clearly one can see the knife and the wood. In this print you can see neither, and if you could, I would have failed.

The western ideas did eventually come to Japan, and 20th century designers like the famous Munakata Shiko revelled in the new approach. Every line of each of his prints was created directly on the surface of the wood from his knife, and the resulting image could never be mistaken for anything other than a woodblock print.

So we have an astonishing paradox behind each and every Japanese print made in the traditional fashion. We find them beautiful in a way that the original designs on which they are based could never be. And yet, the path to reach such beauty consists of a complete and total self-effacement. Just as we discovered with our print last month - it all comes down to what you can't see!


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