The Taoist Immortal Wa-sen

As I hinted last month, this print is a 'quiet' one. We have moved back to a point in time at least half a century before multi-colour printmaking became established in Japan. The print is a page from a book published in 1689, with illustrations by the famous Hishikawa Moronobu. It is a collection about the lives of 'Taoist Immortals', so I presume that we are looking at a scene from China or perhaps Korea.

Each story is complete on one page; this one can be translated:

"The woman known as Wa-sen, when younger put off marriage and studied to follow the path of Tao. Even when immersed in water she was able to stay dry; when in a very cold place she needed no more than the thinnest of clothing and her face did not change colour; and when she struck the rocks with her stick, a door opened wide and she entered to find gold and silver treasure."

There is also a comment to the effect that 'finally, she could ascend to heaven', but it is not clear if this was something that happened after she died, or was just the last stage of her training ...

Carving the calligraphy on this page was a most pleasant few day's work for me. I perhaps shouldn't admit that it took that long, because I am sure that the carvers of old would have finished it much more quickly. When I see some of the old books, especially ones without illustrations - containing just page after page of tiny squiggly calligraphy, I marvel at their endurance. How could they maintain their interest in carving so much repetitive uninteresting material? But of course, 'interest' was not a factor - it was simply their job. For me, although I would rebel at the idea of carving hundreds of pages of text, to do a single page is certainly no burden, and I quite enjoyed it. Unlike the calligraphy on last month's print by Gakutei, which was quite angular, this brushwork is beautifully cursive and was a pleasure to carve.

I learned something quite important during the process of working on this print, and have had to change some of the conceptions I held about the old craftsmen. I had always thought of this early pre-colour work as being quite unsophisticated, and had felt that much of this came from a lack of skill on the part of the carvers, who as a group had not yet developed the refinements of their craft to the level that we see in later prints. Overall that is true, and over the span from early Edo up to late Meiji we do see a progression in carving skills, but what I learned was that this work of Moronobu's time - a period we consider to be the 'roots' of ukiyo-e - is in no way as clumsy or rough as I had thought.

I had looked at things like the roughly shaped small dishes and pots on the table in this print, and had thought "That is so ungraceful - couldn't they do better than that?" But when I came to the calligraphy, with its incredibly small twists and turns, I realized that the craftsmen of this early period were completely capable of carving whatever they wanted to carve. It is beautifully done. Any lack of sophistication in the image itself will have to be laid at the feet of the artist, I think!

These things are all part of my ongoing 'lessons' ... which will continue next month in quite a different vein, as we jump ahead more than 250 years to the middle of the 20th century, and yet another type of print that I have never made before ...

December 2000

David