Ebisu and Daikoku

No room for all seven of them in this circular design by Totoya Hokkei - you'll have to be satisfied with just two of the Seven Lucky Gods. Ebisu is here, together with his fishing rod and the sea bream he has caught, and Daikoku raises his magic mallet while dancing in front of his sack full of treasure. But just in case you might think that only two of them won't suffice to bring enough luck, Hokkei has included a background pattern containing even more symbols of good fortune: the straw raincoat and hat providing invisibility, a scroll representing wisdom, a purse of inexhaustible riches, cloves (a very rare spice in those days), and a four-way divided circle shiho, which makes a pun on shippo, seven treasure jewels. Still not enough? Well, repeating those symbols more than a hundred times should do the trick!

I certainly needed all the 'good fortune' I could get this time! When I started making this print I recognized that I was taking on a major technical challenge; I knew that I would have to carve at a level of delicacy that I had never reached before. Perhaps I'm not supposed to talk about such things - after all, a concert pianist doesn't usually turn to his audience and say "What did you think of my wonderful finger technique in that piece?" But while with a pianist 'technique practice' and 'performance' are always separate, with me this is not the case, I have no rehearsals, I only have performances. Each month I 'step onto the stage' and set to work to make your print. Just how it will turn out I'm never completely sure, I simply do my best ...

I'm fairly happy with the way that recent prints have turned out, and this makes it a bit frustrating to keep hearing one particular comment repeated again and again from other people involved with printmaking. I have heard it from printers, from carvers, and from some of the people who prepare my supplies. The question comes in various forms, but all have the same basic message: "Are these small prints all you make?", "When are you going to make some large prints?", "Don't you want to make real prints?"

Among traditional printers in particular, the perception is quite strong that nobody can really consider himself to have 'arrived' as a printer unless he is skilled at making nishiki-ban - those traditional ukiyo-e prints of the most standard size, as commonly seen in work by Hiroshige, Utamaro, Hokusai, etc. In their minds, beginners start with small prints (postcards, etc.) and then progress up the ladder, making ever larger prints as they become skilled enough to do so.

Well, in recent generations, that indeed has been the common pattern. For most of the past hundred years nishiki-ban have been the staple of the reproduction business, and have provided the bulk of work for most printers. But when one looks further back, to the Meiji and Edo periods, the 'larger = better' equation breaks down. I introduced the Hasegawa prints last month, and they are an excellent example, being very finely produced yet generally of small dimensions. And of course the original prints of the surimono genre, from which my own series takes its inspiration, worked on a reverse equation: 'smaller = better'. So when contemporary printers ask when I'm going to make 'real' prints, I think they are being a bit short-sighted; they themselves are perhaps not too familiar with the history involved ...

A possible reason for this is that during the working life of most of these men, prints like the ones in my albums have simply not been made. This has partly been due to fashion - the nishiki-ban captured everyone's eye - but perhaps a more fundamental reason has been economics. There is rather a lot of carving in this print, most of it quite delicate and time-consuming, there are quite a lot of printing impressions (including metal powders), and the keyblock is a very expensive piece of boxwood. The costs are thus very high, but because the finished product is so small in size, the public generally will not pay much for it. As a consequence, work of this type disappeared from the market long ago, and most currently active printers have never even seen prints like this, let alone had a chance to work on one.

I hope you collectors aren't starting to get worried about the direction in which I am heading - carving ever smaller and smaller; after all there wouldn't be much point in my trying to carve lines any thinner than the fishing line in this print! I'll try to keep a balance - to make prints that give me a personal technical challenge, yet which display an overall beauty and meaning. So relax, next month you won't need a magnifying glass to enjoy the print!

November 2002