Red Dragonfly

Although you wouldn't have guessed it from looking at last month's print, which included a flower that blooms in early summer, I am generally trying to keep a seasonal structure to this year's Surimono Album. The 'autumn' image this month should get us back on track! The designer was the famous Kitagawa Utamaro, and the print is from the first of three illustrated volumes combining kyoka poetry and scenes from nature that he produced in the period from 1788 to 1790. Insects are the theme of the first book, sea-shells are featured in the second, and bird life in the third. These books are exceedingly rare, and of course a small and delicate book is a difficult thing to exhibit properly, so some of his finest work thus remains hidden from view and unknown to the general public.

You may think I exaggerate when I tell you that I think these books are probably the most beautiful objects ever created by the hand of man anywhere in the world, and anytime in history. If though, you yourself have had the experience of holding an early edition of one of them in your hand, to experience its incredible lightness and delicacy and the astonishingly fine carving and printing, then you will understand what I am talking about. These books are not the product of a single man's efforts, but encompass the accumulated expertise of many people - the designer, the carver, the printers, the papermaker, the block planer ... the list goes on and on. And because the publisher, the famous Tsutaya Juzaburo, had a special vision and told these men to 'pull out all the stops', the resulting books are a wonderful thing to behold.

The print you hold now, one single image cropped from one page of one book, is certainly not enough to transmit to you very much of the feeling of the original volumes, but at present it is all I am able to bring you. Perhaps one day - after another decade or so of training and practice - I will have the skill to attempt an entire reproduction of one of these amazing books ...

I particularly enjoyed making this print, as it gave me an opportunity to try a couple of printing techniques that were new to me. The background is embellished with scattered 'sunago', and I am indebted to my friend Mr. Hisashi Komuro for teaching me how to make and apply this form of gold decoration, commonly found on papers for calligraphy, but not often seen on woodblock prints. The other 'special' technique is the use of 'ummo', powdered mica, on the wings of the dragonfly. It really makes a beautiful effect; when I saw the first proof print I almost expected him to fly off the page, he looked so realistic! I have mixed feelings about using too much of this sort of 'glittery' stuff; it can tend to make the print look 'cheap' I think. But many of the old surimono prints used powdered metals such as gold, silver, brass, or copper, and it seems that it is simply a matter of discretion - not too much, but just the right touch in the right place ...

Each insect in the original book is paired with a poem, and the one on this print is by Akera Kanko, a poet with a strong connection with Utamaro; his poems are also included in the two other nature books. Entitled 'Red Dragonfly' ('Aka Tombo') it is a love poem that seems to be drawing a comparison between the 'lovesick' writer, who, like the dragonfly without a voice, is unable to express his love. The original purchasers of the books in this series back in the mid-Edo era were of course connoisseurs of such poetry, and would see the words and images as being of equal importance. For us though, living in a different culture, one in which most of the subtle nuances and references in the poetry have faded away with the passing of time, the poem becomes simply a visual object, part of the overall image itself. So although Mr. Kanko would not perhaps see any purpose in my reproducing this print, I think that Utamaro might be happy to know that his design was being brought to life once more ...

October 1999

David