The Bandit Lu Zhishen

I don't quite know how it happened, but it seems to have become a tradition with these Surimono Albums that the seventh print each time is something a bit 'special', with plenty of delicate carving, special pigments, a large number of impressions ... Well, if those are the requirements for this spot, then one name will soon bubble up to the top of the list of contenders - Totoya Hokkei! Hokkei's name is of course very familiar to collectors of my prints, and indeed, he has already appeared in this year's album - starting it off with the first print. The basic theme this time - Suiko Gogyo (Suikoden and the Five Elements) - overlaps that of the earlier series - Gogyo (Five Elements) - and in both cases (with a lamentable lack of imagination) I ended up choosing the 'wood' design!

I say 'choosing', but it was more serendipity than anything else; during a short trip to the US earlier this year I ran across this print for sale in a museum shop - not a photograph, but an actual old Japanese woodblock print. A group of them were being 'deaccessioned' by the curators, and I was more than happy to 'accession' them for my own collection! And so this one now turns up in yours ...

'Suikoden' is the Japanese name for a hugely famous long and winding Chinese classic story about 108 bandits, one of whom we see in this print - Lu Zhishen, a burly tattooed bear of a man who gets involved in far more adventures than I can recount here; simply let it suffice to say that most of them involve drink, and all of them involve fighting! The particular episode wonderfully depicted here by Hokkei's brush is one in which he pulls a willow tree out of the ground in a demonstration of his superhuman strength.

There are of course five prints in Hokkei's series, representing wood, water, fire, earth and metal, just as there were in the case of the earlier print this year. Each time I make such a print - a single design taken from a larger set - it leaves me with a kind of 'unfinished' feeling. I've been sort of playing a mental game with myself - saying "Sometime in a later Surimono Album I'll return to this series and do another one; that way they'll all get completed bit by bit." But when I look through the pile of prints I've done so far in these albums, I see that around a dozen of them are in this category - 'from an unfinished series' - so it's obvious that I'll never complete them all!

The concept that things can come in sets - and that the existence of a 'set' seems to trigger a desire to 'cover the whole thing' - is a most interesting one. When I was a child I seem to have been quite susceptible to this effect; I collected little cards that came in packages of tea, of course many sets of postage stamps, and even started a project to identify and write down licence plate numbers of cars from every state of the US as they passed down our street, a thoroughly useless activity if ever there was one. In recent years, I have basically managed to keep the 'accumulate the complete set' virus under control - I now own one print from Hokkei's series, but will not start a great hunt for the other four members of the set. But having said that, I'm not quite sure how I would behave if I found myself with four of them - that 'missing' fifth member would certainly be something that I would like to have, obviously.

Having brought up this topic, I suppose I have to address the fact that the very reason I myself am able to make a living at woodblock printmaking is the existence of this 'accumulate the complete set' virus! During the ten years that I worked on the prints of the '100 Poets' I wondered time and again, "Will people really continue with me for 100 prints?", but the virus did its work, and we all got to the end to complete our sets!

These Surimono Albums have no 'end' of course, and there is no 'complete set' that I am trying to encourage you to collect. Next year, for example, I think I'll work on a different set of prints, and will probably return to making Surimono Albums the year after that ... I'm still not sure.

But did you notice ... I said "Next year, a different set of prints ..." Well, of course!

December 2003