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Summer Bamboo

I'm planning ten prints for this year's album, but it seems that my schedule has slipped a bit - this is the fifth print, and it's already August! Counting on my fingers I see that it's going to be a tight 'fit' at the end of the year. But I guess it won't matter if that final print of the set doesn't arrive by December - maybe it'll be a nice New Year image for January ...

This month's artist will perhaps not be so familiar; his name is Tani Bun'ichi, and he was the son of the more famous Tani Buncho, an Edo period painter. Buncho was very popular in his day, and well-known for being very versatile, working in many different styles. Bun'ichi was adopted into the family, and seems to have worked mostly in the Maruyama painting style. Unfortunately, he died young in 1818 (at only 32), and thus not much of his work is known to us. How did I come across this design? That's a little story ...

Although my work schedule doesn't allow too much 'free' time for travelling, I do get away occasionally for a day or two, and this past spring I went on an overnight trip to Oshino, near Lake Yamanaka. One of my 'Hyakunin Isshu' collectors lives there, and had recommended that I visit to see the fabulous view of Mount Fuji from her town. The view in the early morning was indeed wonderful, the spring snowcap against a clear blue sky, but the clouds rolled in soon, and we turned our attention to some of the local sights. One place that we visited was particularly interesting - a very old house in the neighbouring town of Fuji Yoshida belonging to a friend of a friend of hers. Parts of the house date from the Muromachi era, a very long time ago indeed; as we walked around the rooms, I felt that we were likely to fall through the floor at any time, the structure seemed so fragile. There were paintings, scrolls and other artworks scattered all through the building, but one that caught my attention immediately was a five-panel screen that Mr. Makita, the owner of the house, brought out to show us.

Four of the paintings were made in the summer of 1840 by Tani Buncho and three other painters during the course of a memorial get-together for Bun'ichi, one of whose own bamboo paintings, done 22 years earlier, was the fifth screen. I knew none of these details then, but was struck instantly by the Bun'ichi painting. As the others moved on through the house to look at other pictures, I sat and studied this one. And as I looked at it, I realized that here was a design that would make an interesting addition to my Surimono Album. I asked Makita-san if he would permit me to photograph the screen and then use the design for making a woodblock print. He agreed, and this print is the result ...

But getting permission was the easy part; transforming the sumi painting - with its infinite levels of gradation from thick black down to nearly invisible grey - into a woodblock print, has been quite an education for me. When I sit down at my workbench to start carving, it is usually quite clear where to start; with a design like last month's Hiroshige print for example, one always starts with the outlines. But here we have no outlines ... so where to start? How to divide the parts of the image between different blocks? How to mix the sumi for printing each block? Where to add gradations? There were so many questions ...

Whether I 'answered' them all satisfactorily or not I am not sure, but the finished print seems quite attractive, and I am happy with the way it turned out. I should mention as well that the original screen was of course quite large, and what you see here is just one small portion of it; making it into a fan print was my own idea ... Fan-shaped woodblock prints such as this were very common back in the old days, and people would buy them, cut them out, and paste them onto fans for summer use. I wonder how many of my Surimono collectors will do that with this print!

I hope you enjoy this 'Summer Bamboo', brought to you after being 'buried' for a century and a half ...

August 1999

David

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