Pair of Fans

From last month's design right at the beginning of Japanese traditional printmaking, we now jump almost all the way to the end ... The two designs you see in this print were created by Takahashi Shotei in the 1930's. He didn't do them as fan prints - these are just two among hundreds of 'stock' designs that he created for one of the publishers of the day. The clientele was presumably among foreign tourists to Japan, and most of the designs are quaint images of the sort you see here. I have picked up quite a number of these prints over the years (after nearly 20 years living here, do I still behave like a 'tourist'?), and this month I selected these two from my collection to use for the annual 'fan' print because they are images that might help bring a slight cool feeling to the hot summer's day on which you will be opening this package!

I do have mixed feelings about using this type of image. Some years back, I made a pact with myself - "I will never make quaint prints! Snow in the temple courtyard ... Old buildings with tiled roofs ... Broken down farmhouses in the countryside ... These dated and hackneyed themes I will not touch!" I think that the closest I have come to breaking my promise has been with two Hokusai designs: the horse in snow picture with which I began the first album, and the snowy landscape that ended the third album. Those two designs have depth beyond their 'pretty' imagery though, and I have no regret about making those prints. But this one is getting closer to the line; although I suppose in 1930 such a scene could still be seen on a Japanese river, I think the only purpose of making the original print back then was to satisfy a tourist craving for such images.

But I have to admit that someone who tries to take a stand against the use of quaint imagery while making traditional Japanese prints is going to have a pretty rough ride during any debate on the topic. I can well imagine the sort of arguments that a debate opponent could use: "Dave, the use of 'touristy stuff' in Japanese prints goes back well before the westerners came - look at the famous Tokaido series of Hiroshige for example! Or how about all the Yoshiwara prints that people took back to the provinces as 'souvenirs' of their time in Edo? Why would you think that it is wrong for a print to be attractive to a tourist? Don't forget that the Japanese print is primarily a decorative object, and has no pretentions to any intellectual content."

And that is indeed an interesting point; when compared to such work as the German black and white expressionist prints, in which social/political argument is the primary point, Japanese traditional prints do come up short. But if I accept such an argument - that Japanese prints are the beautiful 'bimbo' ... the airhead among the intellectuals of art as it were - where does that leave me and all the work I have done over the past couple of decades? Although I am not a 'capital I' intellectual, I would like to think that there is something more than pure 'prettiness' in what I am doing with my life.

So in response to my imaginary debate opponent, perhaps I could reply like this: "You say Japanese prints are 'simply decorative objects' but I would delete that word 'simply' - they proudly are decorative objects. There is a time and place for everything - I understand that artists must sometimes act as protesters to help us correct injustices in society, but what an unpleasant world we would live in if they all took that path. We need as much, if not more, of the other side - men who look around them, see what is beautiful, and focus our attention on it. Without that, all else is worthless!"

Where does this debate leave you, the viewer of my work? I would like to think that each Surimono Album offers a reasonable balance: although it is in essence simply an object of 'pure' beauty, I hope that the package in toto is something more than that, and that it does offer plenty to think about along the way. Whether or not I am succeeding in this will I think only become apparent quite a bit later, when we look back on the completed albums from a point in the future.

As for the immediate present ... I find myself in a slight quandary ... I have such a beautiful design chosen for next month's print!

August 2002