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Monkey and Crab
The gracious print that we have this month is thought to come to us from the brush of Utagawa Toyohiro. Although the illustrations of this print that I have seen do not have a signature, some copies are known to carry one of his seals, and the gentle mood is characteristic of his work. Toyohiro is not a name that immediately springs to mind when discussing the history of ukiyo-e, but he is one of those artists whose influence has spread far beyond the direct reach of his own brush; in 1811 he took into his studio - and became the mentor of - the 14-year old boy Tokutaro Ando, whom we now know by the name of Hiroshige ...
It had not originally been my intention to make this print immediately after the one of the dragonfly; I had wanted it to appear earlier in this year's set. But I had a bit of difficulty getting access to a clear copy for reproduction and had to rearrange things a bit, so we ended up with two 'animal' prints side by side. But that gives us a good excuse for comparing them, because they are quite different in an important way. The image of the dragonfly was drawn in quite a realistic manner. Indeed, looking through Utamaro's nature books, one sees all the creatures drawn with a degree of realism quite unknown in most ukiyo-e work. There is no question in my mind at all that he must have studied the real animals quite closely.
But look at this one! Where have you ever seen a monkey with a face like that? Is it a monkey? It almost looks like some kind of tree-sloth ... And the crab is just a bunch of quick brush strokes that do no more than suggest that we are looking at a crab. And that of course, is the idea - Toyohiro is not 'drawing' a crab and monkey for us, he is simply using his brush to 'suggest' the idea of these two animals. We take the hint, and fill in the rest mentally by ourselves. The same technique is used all over this print: the tree, the reeds, the water ... nothing is shown directly, all is simply suggested.
I wonder how long it took him to do the original design? Almost certainly no more than a couple of minutes ... something I thought about a lot during the hours that I was chipping away at the cherrywood trying to reproduce his 'simple' brush strokes!
I learned something interesting about this year's Surimono Album a couple of weeks ago when I had a visit from one of my ex-English students. This person and I know each other quite well and can speak between ourselves quite freely without fear of seeming too rude; she looked at the seven prints finished so far and said "These prints are all too quiet! Look at them all - nothing is happening! I'll fall asleep looking at them ..."
Looking through the set, I had to admit that she was right; these prints are indeed very quiet - you can't 'hear' anything at all when you look at any of them. This I guess, is due to a couple of things - my work reflects my very simple and quiet life here, and of course my character in general is on the quiet side; I have been living here in Hamura for nearly 14 years now, and how many times have I been out to a 'nomiya' for an evening's drinking? Only once ...
When I was planning the Surimono Albums, I decided right back at the beginning that I would be choosing prints that I liked. Hopefully I would choose wisely enough that others would appreciate the work too. It seems that in the case of this lady, I have failed. I am now at the stage of doing the preliminary selection of designs for next year's album (yes, I'm going to do it again next year - this is too much fun to stop now!), and I'll keep her comments in mind while looking over potential print subjects.
But don't expect to see a lot of dramatic changes - I don't think I'll be including violent Kuniyoshi ghost stories, for example. I can't change my character (I don't want to!). Future Surimono Albums will continue to be made up of basically quiet, refined images, ones that offer me interesting technical challenges, and ones that I hope will bring to both of us - you the collector, and I the craftsman - a sense of satisfaction and pleasure.
If you're still awake, that is!