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Mandarin Ducks

Here we are at last with the final print in this first Surimono Album. This design, created just over two hundred years ago by Isoda Koryusai, is one that I selected for this album a long time ago - nearly two years ago in fact - and I have been looking forward to making it all during that time. The poem on the print can perhaps be paraphrased as something like: 'Our warm love will be all the blanket that we need ...' Mandarin ducks are an old Japanese symbol for a happy marriage, as they were thought to mate for life, but as modern research has taught us that the real facts of duck 'togetherness' are somewhat different, it seems that we may have to find a new symbol to replace them! At the moment, I can't quite think of anything suitable ...

Those of you can read Japanese may notice something a little bit strange about the signature on the print - it reads 'Koryu'. Is this a mistake? Did the carver 'forget' one character of the designer's name, or did Koryusai sometimes sign his name this way? I have no idea. Perhaps though ... he did it on purpose! Perhaps he knew what I was going to do with this print two hundred years later, and didn't want his name associated with it!

I should explain what I mean ... The print you see here is not the print he designed. Just as I did with many of the Hyakunin Isshu prints I made, I have added a number of colours that were not in the original. The key block - the block containing the lines drawn by Koryusai's brush - is identical to the original, but while the original has only three additional colour impressions, I have used twenty. In fact, the overall style of this print has been transformed into something similar to those prints designed in the first half of the 20th century which we know as 'shin-hanga'. Whether or not Koryusai would approve of this sort of thing is of course a matter of complete speculation, but I'm not overly concerned with that. I simply wanted to bring this design to life, in a way that the printers of his day were yet unable to do ...

The question of how many colours to use for any particular print is something that touches on two fields: art and economics. In the case of a print like this, there seems to be no question that the design is improved by the addition of these extra colours - mandarin ducks are not 'two tone', but are multi-coloured creatures. Koryusai of course knew this when he created his design. Why then, was the original print not made with 20 impressions? The answer is simply - 'money'. Each additional colour impression means extra money for a woodblock, extra money for the carver, and of course payment for the extra time it takes the printer to print all those colours. And it certainly does take time! I made 200+ copies of this print; 20 colours times 200 sheets means that I made 4000 impressions - each and every one of which had to be perfectly registered and smoothly printed. I can certainly understand the feelings of the original publisher two hundred years ago, who might perhaps have said "Twenty colours? Forget it!"

If I too, had to hire carvers and printers to do the work for me, there is no way that these Surimono Albums could come into existence. The price for each print would be so high that nobody would ever subscribe to the series, and the project would thus never have been feasible. But of course, I'm quite happy doing those three jobs myself - publisher, carver and printer. It's that fourth job - designer - that I can't handle. Luckily for us though, the Japanese printmaking traditions allow this sort of collaboration.

So there you have it - ten prints for the album. Coming up - ten more, as the second of these Surimono Albums will get under way next month. I hope you will join me!

January 2000


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