Spring Fuji

A woodblock print purist who looked through last year's first Surimono Album might have questioned my use of the term 'surimono' for those prints. Out of the ten prints, only two of them were originally of the surimono genre; the others were taken from book illustrations or single sheet commercial prints. But remember, I am making my own definition of 'surimono' ... 'beautiful, small-scale, privately published woodblock prints'. This year though, I do intend to include more reproductions of original surimono, and I'm starting right away - this one, a view of Fuji-san in early spring, is a surimono designed in the early 1830's by Totoya Hokkei.

Japanese viewers will probably be able to guess - when they see the kanji characters that make up his name - that Hokkei was one of the pupils of Katsushika Hokusai. Because he designed mostly surimono and illustrated books, rather than more famous actor and courtesan prints, his name is almost completely unknown to most people today. A reference book that I have here though, describes him as 'an artist contributing to more than a hundred publications and designing almost a thousand surimono.' A thousand surimono! I think you will be seeing more of Hokkei in future Surimono Albums ...

I do not own a copy of the original version of this print, but do have a Meiji-era version of it, and it is that print that I used as a guide to make this reproduction. The poem, which is by a gentleman called Ryueko Itonaga, plays on the auspicious feelings felt when seeing the snow covered mountain top rising above the clouds.

As you have perhaps already noticed, there are some special 'colours' used on this print; in two places I have used powdered metals instead of 'normal' pigments. Most of the surimono made back in the Edo era were commissioned privately, for non-commercial distribution. The people who commissioned the prints were not in the slightest bit interested in 'balancing the books' and were willing to spend quite a bit of money in order to have the prints look as beautiful as possible. It was thus quite common for prints to be made with special (and more expensive) materials like the ones you see here. For quite some time I have been interested in learning how to use powdered metals on the prints, and this one gave me the chance to work out how it was done. The 'river of clouds' that curls around the base of Fuji-san is printed with powdered bronze, and the silvery 'snow' on the mountain top is printed with 'suzu no fun' (a powdered metal which I think may be nickel silver).

I should mention that although this is a reproduction, there is one very large difference between the Meiji print and the one you are now looking at. Temple bells are made of a similar bronze to the one I used here, but have you ever seen a temple bell bright and shiny like this? I think not ... As the years go by, the bronze powder on this print will slowly oxidize and develop a darker greenish-tinged patina. Is this something you should worry about? From my point of view - not at all. The Meiji print I own is quite a beautiful object - not only has the bronze oxidized almost completely, but the paper too has developed a warmer tone from the natural aging process. It is much more pleasant to look at than my print. But when it was new, it must have looked something pretty much like mine, bright and very 'clean'.

This is always a quandary for those of us who make reproductions of older prints - whether to make our prints look like the original when it was new, or like the original after many years of aging. But I don't think that you collectors would be so happy if I artificially oxidized the metals, and dipped the print in tea to darken the paper. And besides, if I artificially aged the print now, then what would it look like after a hundred years had really gone by? Not so beautiful I think ... So perhaps it's better just to make the prints in the same way that the craftsmen did in the old days, and then to sit back and let time take its course. You yourself can enjoy the new and clean print, and your grandchildren can enjoy the 'aged' version ...

I am looking forward to a very interesting year of printmaking, and will do my best to make prints that you will find both interesting and attractive. Thank you very much for joining this project!

March 2000