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Autumn: Scent of Chrysanthemums

Posted by Dave Bull at 5:56 PM, October 4, 2004

We move ahead now more than a hundred years, to Meiji 38 (1905). The print you see here was first issued as a kuchi-e (frontispiece) included with the popular magazine Bungei Kurabu ('Literary Art Club'), in the October issue of that year. The image apparently was not intended to be an illustration to a specific item or story in the magazine, but served to add a general seasonal touch to the publication. It was designed by Kajita Hanko, a name well known in the world of kuchi-e, but almost totally unrecognized outside of that sphere.

When we compare this design with the two previous images in this series, the single most striking point about it is that this is a real person. Both of those other images were very heavily stylized drawings - noses, eyes, fingers ... none of these bore any resemblance at all to real human features. But if we happened to have a photograph of this scene and overlaid it with this drawing, the two would 'line up' almost perfectly. The 'art' of drawing the human figure had moved ahead a long way in a hundred years. This is not to imply that all kuchi-e were totally realistic; depending on the designer, facial features had varying degrees of stylization, but the genre as a whole shows a fascinating transition from the somewhat flat drawing of the ukiyo-e, to a type of drawing obviously influenced by the arrival of the camera. Viewers had come to expect images to look more like the 'real thing'.

Although not immediately apparent in the finished product, there was a major change in woodblock print production techniques at this time. In the case of the ukiyo-e, the designer was only required to produce a line drawing of the design. Only after this was carved did work begin on the process of deciding how the image would be coloured. The designer and/or publisher and/or printer made the decisions on colour 'separations', by marking the various outlined areas of the print to be coloured, and printers then had great leeway in deciding the actual shades to be used in the print. But for this new type of image, the designer produced a completed picture (using watercolours). Taking that as a 'master' copy, the production team then created a set of blocks with which the printer could reproduce the image exactly. All the creativity thus shifted to the designer, and the work of the craftsmen became much more strictly dictated. We have no records or surviving documents to tell us what those men thought of this change, but as at that time their world was already crumbling - their work was disappearing due to the arrival of printing presses - we can perhaps imagine that they were just glad to have the work, of whatever kind!

I have written before in these print stories about my admiration for the Meiji-era craftsmen. I think that for both carving and printing, these men were the ones who reached the highest levels of the craft - the culmination of hundreds of years of development and progress. So for me to take on the challenge of reproducing one of these kuchi-e is no small matter. I studied this print long and hard before deciding to include it in this series; could I print colour that delicate and smooth? Could I carve hair lines that fine? Honestly speaking, I wasn't actually sure if I would succeed ... or fall on my face. The single biggest challenge I faced was the area at the side of her face where the hairs criss-cross each other repeatedly. Many years ago, when I was making the prints in my Hyakunin Isshu series, I 'solved' criss-cross hair carving by cutting two blocks - one for vertical lines, and one for horizontal. The Meiji-era kuchi-e carvers needed no such artifice. They cut all the hair on one block.

And that is what I too did this time. All that tangle of criss-crossing hair lines is cut on a single piece of wood. (I used boxwood; cherry - hard as it is - is simply too 'open-pored' for such work.) And once it was carved, I then had to print it cleanly without getting pigment stuck between the lines and corners ...

I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out; it's kind of a joke in my mind, but I can't help thinking that perhaps I'm finally at a level where I could maybe get a job as a carver in a Meiji-era workshop. Realistically though, I know I wouldn't last long in such employment ... I'm sure those men worked very long hours, in difficult conditions, for quite low remuneration ... But what is worse, I'm sure that the boss would never let me put my signature on the finished prints!

October 2004


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