Priest on Snowy Path

I don't know if any of you collectors are 'tracking' the coverage of the history of Japanese prints in these Surimono Albums. After five albums and 50 prints, have I actually selected a balanced survey of the field? The answer to that is a very clear 'no', although it would not really be a fair question, because I have never intended these albums to represent an accurate historical overview. The selection has ranged quite far and wide, but there is one underlying criteria for inclusion that guarantees the albums will never have a truly representative balance - I only choose prints that I myself like! So if you've been waiting for something by Kunisada, Kuniteru, Kunihiro, Kuninao, or any of the other numberless followers of Toyokuni, you'll have to keep waiting ...

There is one man though in that 'Kuni' group (which numbers more than 50 artists) who stands out from the rest - Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This print, originally published just one year after Hiroshige's famous Tokaido series, is not really representative of his work, as his later style is dramatically different, but as I said, I'm not trying to be 'complete', I'm just following my own preferences.

The design is one from a set of ten, and has become one of Kuniyoshi's best-known works. It makes rather heavy use of the bokashi gradation technique, just as did the previous print by Tsuchiya Koitsu, but in this case, there is an extra 'twist' that rather complicates matters.

In that print of Mt. Fuji, the gradations were for the most part applied to smooth open areas of the print - the sky, the water surface, etc. In this print though, all these areas are not smooth, but are interrupted by snowflakes. As I have mentioned before in these stories, whenever you see white in a classical ukiyo-e print, you are looking at the white of the paper, not at white pigment, and so it is in this case. All those white specks are bare paper, and this means that on each of those blocks - sea, sky, mountainside, buildings - each and every one of those specks is carved out of the wood. Now this poses no special difficulties for the carver, but when the printer sees a block like this, he knows he is facing a challenge.

The problem is water. In order to print a smooth gradation, the surface of the block must be moistened, and of course, wiping water across a piece of wood riddled with tiny indentations tends to leave the holes full of water. When the pigment is brushed over the surface, the printed result is not 'empty' white spots, but coloured 'blots'. The difficulty is magnified on this print by the fact that many of the blocks - the sea for example - must be printed more than once to produce the required effect, making it quite a challenge to keep all the specks clear and bright.

I knew what I was letting myself in for when I chose this design, with snowflakes covering almost the entire surface of the image, so made no complaint while working my way through the large number of impressions. All in all, it was very good practice, but I was glad to get to the end of the stack of 200 sheets!

To me, this image makes a very good choice to finish off this album, and indeed, to finish off the group of five Surimono Albums that I have made so far. As you will read in the Afterword, I will not be continuing immediately with another one of these albums; there will be a 'change of pace' for at least a year.

So I will go out in much the same way I came in five years ago, with a soundless image of a passage through falling snow ...

April 2004

David