Young Sparrows

Although the woodblock prints of the Edo and Meiji eras all had their origins in brush drawings, the prints can be divided into two categories. Most common were those in which the original drawing was done with the intention of serving as a hanshita (block-cutter's copy) for the print-making process. The designer knew as he was creating the image that their strokes would be 'translated' into carved lines, and he presumably kept this in mind as he worked. The great bulk of ukiyo-e prints were made this way.

The second category of prints were reproductions of pre-existing paintings. The designers of these had not been thinking of a print when they worked, and so were not concerned with how well their strokes would translate into printed form. When such designs were later used to make prints, the carvers were faced with much greater challenges.

An analogy with classical music will perhaps serve to illustrate the difference between the two styles. It is common for pieces of music that were originally written for the piano to later be arranged for orchestra. The basic music remains the same, but the different form of expression, with a more varied range of 'tone colours', gives the composition a whole new life. And indeed, in many famous cases in the world of music, such arrangements have become more well-known than the original versions.

The print you are looking at this month is one such 'arrangement'. The original brush painting was done by Shibata Zeshin, and the design was later published in this print form in the collection known as Shibata Zeshin Gafu, probably sometime in the 1880's. (I have of course reproduced the print version - I have never seen the original painting.) Whether or not the print version is 'better' than the original painting is I think a meaningless question. Although during the carving and printing I worked to try and capture the immediacy and haphazard nature of the brush strokes, it is not a slavish imitation. I think it stands on its own very well ... and besides, of a painting, there can be only one copy, but once it becomes a print, many people can enjoy the design ...

 

Zeshin is famous for arranging his designs on the paper in novel ways; he may bunch the design all into one corner and leave the rest of the paper blank, he may omit important design elements completely, or he may distort or 'lop off' parts of the image, as he has done here, leaving us somewhat confused at first as to just what it is we are looking at. But after a moment or two, our eyes manage to sort it out, and we recognize the pattern of traditional roof tiles, with a bamboo rain gutter hanging underneath, and a sparrows' nest tucked in between the two ...

 

I was able to make this reproduction through the courtesy of the Honolulu Academy of Arts in Hawaii, who very kindly supplied me with a colour transparency of the print in their collection. Over the past couple of years I have not been finding it easy to obtain such cooperation from various institutions with print collections, and am thus particularly grateful for their support. I hope in future albums to be able to make more prints from originals in the Academy; I feel a bit of a 'connection' to the collection there. The great bulk of their print collection was presented to them by the American author James Michener, and he was a sort of 'intellectual patron' of my Hyakunin Isshu print series, encouraging me and offering assistance in the early days of the work. Although the Zeshin prints in the Honolulu collection are not part of his bequest, I have no doubt that he would agree with their decision to allow my use of the designs. I hope that as time goes by I will be able to convince more museum curators to grant me similar access to their collections, as I think that my work provides a wonderful way for such preserved material to be brought out 'into the light' once more ...

September 2000

David