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Horses in Snow

(From the Hokusai Manga)

What a perfect choice for a first print in this new series of 'Surimono Albums'! Katsushika Hokusai's vast collection of drawings known as the 'Manga' would by itself be enough to supply me with interesting material for prints for the rest of my life. I certainly don't intend to try reproducing the whole thing - even the fifty years or so that I have left wouldn't be enough time for that - but I will be dipping into it with great relish every once in a while, whenever I am looking for a bit of a 'special' image. Japanese traditional woodblock prints of bygone eras are not really noted for their emotive feeling; beautiful though they are, they can be quite 'cool' and lacking in expressive warmth. Hokusai's images though, especially the ones that fill the pages of the Manga, are a tapestry of the human experience. The people in this print are undeniably real people, even though they are each delineated with the merest flick of the brush. That was his genius, and we can certainly feel the immense frustration he must have felt at the end of his life when he is said to have cried on his deathbed: "If heaven could only grant me ten more years! Only five more, and I would have become a real painter."

So is this what I am planning for these Surimono Albums - a Manga-type 'grab bag' of jumbled imagery? Well, yes and no. Although this series, unlike my previous Hyakunin Isshu series, will not have a single unified theme, it will have a logical basis to its construction. Each set of ten prints will be made up of what I hope will be a balanced selection of images: balanced in subject matter - landscapes, nature, still life, human figures, etc.; balanced in era - from early Edo right up through Showa (and if I can arrange copyright permissions, perhaps even more modern designs as well); balanced in overall visual appearance - including sparse designs like this month's print, as well as more dense designs like the one you will see next month; and, in what is of most interest to me, balanced in technical requirements - some prints using straightforward carving and printing methods, and some using complex techniques that will tax my abilities. Some of the prints you receive this year will indeed be reproductions of 'real' surimono, while others (like this month's Hokusai design) will be designs that were originally published with some other intention, but which completely match the context of this series.

Maybe the result will turn out to be a jumble after all, but I think not. There are hundreds of thousands of Japanese prints in museums and private collections around the world, and given this immense storehouse of riches from which to choose, I rather suspect that I will have no problem at all in selecting ten images each year that will satisfy all those requirements, and yet will form a coherent set when they are finally seen together ... come next December.

The surimono that were produced in their heyday, in the late 1700's and early 1800's, achieved astonishing levels of beauty and technical achievement. The men who commissioned them were connoisseurs indeed, and demanded 'the best' in every aspect of their production - top rank artists, the finest papers, the most skilled craftsmen ... It is thus with some trepidation that I step forward and call these new prints of mine 'surimono' - do they indeed match those qualifications? Top artists - no question about it. Finest paper - no question about that either; Mr. Iwano's paper is the best 'hosho' being made anywhere. The most skilled craftsmen - well, compared to those men of two hundred years ago, I do still have quite some way to go. But my skills are nothing to be ashamed of ... And that ties in with the final criterion - connoisseurs indeed. This one will be up to you. The sharper your eyes are, and the more critical you can be, the higher we will be able to climb together. It has to come from both of us - you must demand the best work, and I will try to produce it.

There are now no men alive on this planet who can work to the level of the carvers of the 'old days'; and speaking realistically, I know that I will never reach that level; the times have simply changed too much. But with your support, both overall and critical, we'll see just what I can manage ... Thank you very much for joining this project.

March 1999


Copies of this print are available from the Mokuhankan print shop.