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Gathering Shellfish at Shinagawa
Most people had probably not heard of the artist who drew last month's print, Onishi Chinnen, but this month's artist certainly doesn't need much of an introduction - one quick glance at the print will tell you that it was designed by Ando Hiroshige. During the final phase of work on my Hyakunin Isshu series, many people gave me suggestions on what I should do next, and far and away the most common suggestion I received was that of creating a reproduction of Hiroshige's famous '53 Stations of the Tokaido' series. I'm sure that they said this with good intentions, but my reaction was always the same ... 'No, no no!'. It's not that I don't like Hiroshige, or that I'm afraid of doing another long series, it's just that the Tokaido prints have been studied and reproduced so many times already ... everybody is very familiar with them, and there simply isn't any valid reason for me to spend so much time and effort going over the same ground. For me, it is much more interesting to dig up designs that are relatively unknown - a great deal of my pleasure comes from showing 'buried treasures' to everybody, just as I did with Shunsho's beautiful Hyakunin Isshu designs.
The 'buried treasure' you are looking at now is from his series 'Edo Meisho Harimaze Zue', which was originally published in 1857. The series includes ten sheets, each sheet made up of a group of small designs; it seems that they were designed to be trimmed apart after printing. I have chosen one of the designs, a scene showing two women digging for shellfish at Shinagawa.
There is an interesting story associated with this series of prints ... A few years ago, researchers were working in America in the archives of Frank Lloyd Wright (the architect of the original Imperial Hotel here in Tokyo). Wright was well-known as a collector of Japanese prints, and spent huge amounts of money on them each time he came to Japan, back in the early part of the century. (He also included many fine surimono in his collection, and if the custodians of those archives will cooperate with my plans, we will be seeing some of those in these Surimono Albums later ...). The researchers came across a number of stored bundles, and when they were opened, they were found to contain carved woodblocks from the Edo period - the blocks for this very same series. It seems that Wright, out of curiosity perhaps, bought them from a dealer, and the blocks were thus saved from destruction in the great Kanto earthquake a few years later.
They were found to be in quite good condition, and of course somebody came up with the idea of re-printing them to make a new edition of Hiroshige's prints. After many discussions, the blocks were sent back to Tokyo, where one of the modern print publishers made 200 copies of each of the prints. It is interesting to think about what to call these new prints. They can't really be called reproductions, because they were printed from the original blocks, but they aren't really originals, because Hiroshige has been dead for well over a hundred years ...
Anyway, my print is definitely a reproduction. It was quite interesting for me to work on this design, because it is the first time that I have used 'Hiroshige' colours. Normally, an apprentice learning to be a printer would make this sort of print very early on in his training, but in my case, because I was involved with my Shunsho series for so long, I had no opportunity at all to use these colours. The dark blue gradation that you see near the bottom of this print for example, is the pigment known as 'Prussian Blue', which was unknown in Japan during Shunsho's era. I have waited nearly twenty years for a chance to use it! The deep 'kusa iro' is also very common in prints of this era, but I am using it for the first time ...
I think I have learned more about printmaking in these first few months of work on the Surimono Album, than in many of the previous years. Although my 'method' of learning this craft certainly does seem quite mixed up and confused, there is one definite advantage for me - my work is always interesting! In a couple of days I will start work on the next print, and at the moment, I have no idea at all how I am going to do it. Both the carving and printing are going to be something I have never tried before. I hope that doesn't make you too nervous ...