Woman with Letter

As I write these notes to accompany the print each month, one of the first things I try to get into the story is the name of the person who designed the print. That's going to be somewhat difficult this time - it's a bit of a long story!

On the face of it, there is no problem; I can tell you that the artist involved is Miyagawa Issho, one of the followers of the far more famous ukiyo-e painter Miyagawa Choshun. But members of this school never had anything to do with woodblock prints; they were painters of kakemono-e, picture scrolls. I have never seen the original painting from which this was taken; what I do have is a collection of a hundred pictures issued by the Kokkei Shimbun of Osaka in 1909-10. The set of pictures is entitled 'Collection of 100 Artists' Depictions of Beauties', and was issued one sheet at a time over an extended period, being passed out as a 'freebie' to subscribers of the newspaper every two weeks (a custom still common in contemporary Japan, where at least one major newspaper frequently chooses ukiyo-e subjects for their free handouts.)

Now it is obvious that the 100 artists themselves were not involved in the production of this album (of course most of them were long dead by this time.) It seems that a Meiji-era artist, Shuntei Maeno, was commissioned to produce the 100 designs, based on the work of the original men. He was pretty good at this job of imitation, and most of the pictures are indeed quite recognizable; this is 'Shunsho', this is 'Sukenobu', etc. etc. When inspected by somebody with long experience in the field though, some of the images look a bit 'funny' - there is just 'something' wrong somewhere, even if it is impossible to pin down actually what it is. But in this particular image, he has caught the correct flavour of the Choshun school of painters, and their manner of depicting women with quite marked sensuous overtones.

The album seems to have been popular, and it was re-published a number of times in the early Taisho period in book form; copies are still frequently seen in the used bookshops in Kanda.

Once work on the carving was under way, of course I found myself curious about the meaning of the calligraphy on the letter she is holding. Her face is fairly impassive, and doesn't give us many clues - is this a pledge of eternal love, or is it a 'Dear John' type of letter? I took a copy of the letter over to an acquaintance, a man who has considerable knowledge of Edo period history and calligraphy, to see if I could learn something about it. I had been puzzled by the fact that the letter seems to be written in a feminine hand; this led me to think that this woman had written it, and was reading it over before sending it off. But he pointed out to me that in those days it was not uncommon for a man to use such a delicate cursive hand when penning a letter to a woman. This may partly have been because women in those days received little formal education and were thus unable to read many Chinese characters, usually reading and writing in the phonetic kana syllabary instead, but I think that perhaps it was because that for a conversation full of delicate nuance, the spidery cursive phonetic writing was much more capable of communicating the essence of the message than were scholarly kanji characters.

This calligraphy was a joy to carve ... long sweeping curves like we see here are always the carver's favourite part of the job! And the pleasure is doubled when the materials are suitably matched; I did this part of the job - and her delicate hairlines - on hard dense boxwood. And as a final note - I might also mention that after finishing the carving work on these delicate parts of the print, and quietly comparing my work with the old print, I recognized that if I were suddenly transported back in time to the Meiji era, maybe ... just maybe ... I wouldn't starve to death after all!


May 2003