Young Girl Viewing Cherry Blossoms

For the second print in this year's Surimono Album, we step back a couple of generations - to Nishikawa Sukenobu, who died in 1750, ten years before Hokusai was born. We also move to a different place - most of the ukiyo-e that we know and love were created in Edo, the main capital of Japan - but Sukenobu lived and worked in Kyoto. In this early period there was a thriving book publishing industry in that part of Japan; the book from which this picture is taken ('Ehon Chiyomigusa'), was published in Osaka in 1740.

I wonder if there are any 'purists' among the collectors of these new Surimono Albums? If so, then I may be in a bit of trouble this month; for you see, this print was designed about two decades before the full-colour 'nishiki-e' technique was developed - the original book was printed with black only. All the colours you see in this print are not the work of Sukenobu, but are my creations. This actually is not such a 'terrible' thing to do as it might sound; if a modern western printmaker made a new edition of a Rembrandt etching with new colours added, I don't think that it would be accepted too well by the art community, but the Japanese traditional way of printmaking delegated a tremendous amount of responsibility to the carver and printer, and we know that quite often the designer's only input was the original brush sketch - the rest of the work, even such creative jobs such as devising attractive colour schemes, was done by the 'shokunin'. The printer's job is not just to move the baren back and forth ...

Why did I choose this picture? There are a few reasons ... The first and foremost of course is simply that I enjoy Sukenobu's designs very much - the women (or in this case, a young girl) are portrayed in a most pleasing and graceful manner. This is what he was famous for, and he produced thousands of such illustrations during his working life - every one of them suffused with this grace and elegance. But another reason is the direct link with my previous work on the Hyakunin Isshu series. When one first starts becoming familiar with Japanese prints, the work of Suzuki Harunobu soon comes to one's attention - his idealized and poetic women are among the most fascinating and beautiful of all ukiyo-e images. But as one learns more about the history of the art, one sees these images by Sukenobu and comes to realize that Harunobu did not create his style in a vacuum - his women are drawn very much in the 'manner' of the older artist. And the link to Shunsho, the man who created the Hyakunin Isshu series that I reproduced? Well, he was the 'next in line' as it were - his early work is almost indistinguishable from Harunobu's. Each man first assimilated a style from his predecessor, and then gradually transformed it into something of his own.

And should you need even a bit more of a link - some scholars are of the opinion that Shunsho was actually the 'love child' of Sukenobu himself ... (but I shouldn't be passing on centuries-old rumours, should I!)

Carving the print this month was a kind of 'coming home' for me - as my knife cut along the smooth curves of the kimono, I felt that I was in very familiar 'territory'. You see, last month was quite a shock; for ten years, I had been carving nothing but the Sukenobu/Harunobu/Shunsho kind of lines - elegantly brushed slender curves, tapering off beautifully at the ends. But when I started to carve that Hokusai design, I found out that everything I had learned during that ten years had to be tossed out the window. Did you feel that the print was peaceful and calm? Perhaps so, but I have to say that I felt no such peacefulness when faced with Hokusai's lines. Go back and look at them ... ragged lines, torn in places, full of energy. The man must have been a bundle of energy! In order to reproduce those lines properly I found myself digging away at the wood in a way that I never had to do before. It taught me a very important lesson - that when carving a Hokusai print, one carves 'Hokusai's way', almost becoming a Hokusai; when carving a Sukenobu print, one becomes a Sukenobu.

Eight more prints to go this year - all by different artists - it is going to be quite an education ...

April 1999