Peony and Sparrow

For our third print of the year, we have another 'nature' print from the prolific Isoda Koryusai. I say 'another', because it was just a few months ago, at the end of my first Surimono Album, that I reproduced one of his designs ... The original of this one was made somewhere around the end of the Meiwa period (about 1770). It is part of a set of eight prints, and for those of you who aren't too familiar with ancient Chinese poetry, there are some things to explain about it ...

The main inscription reads 'mitate sômoku hakkei' (Parody of Eight Famous Views with Flowers and Trees), and the viewers back in the Edo era would thus instantly have recognized that this print was based on a literary allusion. 'Mitate' in its most simple sense means 'parody', and what is being parodied here is a set of eight classical Chinese poems. The poems, which were very familiar to educated people of that era, referred to eight famous places in China - each place associated with a poetic image: rain by night, an autumn moon, the sound of a temple bell in the evening, etc. etc. One of the eight poems described evening snow on a famous mountain, and it is that one that provided the inspiration for this particular design. I'm certain that Koryusai didn't intend the image to be taken literally, and didn't try to depict an actual mountain in his design - but the broad white expanse of the peony blossoms is the 'key' to the literary puzzle. And just in case the viewer doesn't 'get it' at first glance, the sub-title reads 'shiro botan bosetsu' (White Peony as Evening Snow).

At the time that I was gathering together the designs for this year's Surimono Album, this one attracted my attention for a couple of reasons. Of course, I'm a pushover for this sort of 'karazuri' (empty printing), and was immediately attracted by that aspect of the print, but there was something else here that drew my attention. This is a very early use of the technique we now know as the 'nezumi-ban' (grey block). Somebody involved with the production of this print, perhaps the artist, perhaps a carver or printer, had the idea of using an extra colour block to vary the tone of some of the colours. Some of the green areas appear in a deeper tone, and these are areas that are over-printed with a light grey, as is part of the stone in the foreground.

This idea of a 'tone block' was very common in western printmaking at the time. There, it went under the name of 'chiaroscuro' (light-shade). Such prints pre-date the introduction of colour printing in Japan, and it is highly probable that Japanese designers were exposed to these European colour prints, and from them (and other Chinese examples) got the idea for making prints in colour.

But the Edo-era printmakers, even though they might have found an initial inspiration in the foreign prints they saw, chose to follow a different path. The Japanese designers rejected the idea of modulating colour with such tone blocks as we see here, and chose to stay with 'flat' tones. Even with long searching through many of my reference books, I can find very few other examples of such nezumi-ban. The technique of using a single block to vary the tone of multiple colours in the print was not to become widely used until the twentieth century, when many of the prints known as shin-hanga, by such designers as Kawase Hasui and Hiroshi Yoshida, used multiple grey-blocks to create wonderful illusions of depth.

The story of how Japanese ukiyo-e prints heavily influenced western art is widely known, but what is not so widely understood is just how much those ukiyo-e works were themselves influenced by the west ... The influences went 'round and 'round, back and forth from country to country, with each culture learning from the others and adding their own original features.

So perhaps it's really not so strange after all, for an Englishman to be sitting here in a workroom in Tokyo in the year 2000, printing a nezumi-ban on a print by Koryusai ...

May 2000