Hawaiian Canoers

Did you do the arithmetic? At the end of last month's print story I mentioned jumping ahead 280 years ... and that brings us to the year 2000. Yes, for the first time in these Surimono Albums we have a print by a living designer. Of course, this means that I had to get permission to use the image, but American designer Gary Luedtke, who lives, not in Hawaii, but thousands of kilometres from the sea in Kansas, kindly agreed to cooperate when I proposed this idea, and gave me the 'go ahead'.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the genre of prints known as shin-hanga. These were created in the first half of the 20th century, mostly by the publisher Shozaburo Watanabe, and were an attempt to carry forward the practice of cooperative printmaking - the division of labour between publisher, designer, carver and printer. This was the way that the traditional ukiyo-e had always been made of course, but by his time, ukiyo-e was on its last legs; under the heavy influence of Western ideas, print artists were coming to think that they had to do everything by themselves, from sketch to finished work. While recognizing that there would be artists who wished to work that way, Watanabe realized that such prints would never reach the levels of technical mastery that specialist craftsmen were capable of, and he spent a lifetime sponsoring the creation of a genre of prints that combined the work of new designers with the skill of the old craftsmen - the spectacular shin hanga.

Foreigners made up the largest market for the prints he published, and the names Kawase Hasui and Ito Shinsui, his two 'star' designers, became well-known around the world. Under Watanabe's astute sponsorship, the genre flourished for decades, only to be dealt a crippling blow by the breakdown in Japanese/Western relations at the time of the Second War. He attempted to revive it when peace returned, but was not able to repeat his former success, partly due to his inability to find more artists capable of producing suitable designs. Foreigners did continue to buy Japanese prints, but these were mostly reproductions of old ukiyo-e. And then some years later when the Japanese yen was revalued upwards, and such hand-made products became much more expensive, the tourist print market was devastated, and has remained moribund to this day.

I can guess your comment ... 'What about you!' Yes, of course I have given a great deal of thought to this, and I have even talked to people on both sides - designers and craftsmen - to try and get them together. But these efforts have failed to come to fruition, for two reasons. Foremost is that I simply haven't had the time to spend on such projects; my own printmaking - with its monthly deadline - keeps me occupied pretty much full time, as you know! But a more fundamental reason is that economics may make such a venture impossible these days; it worked when Japan was a 'developing' country and wages were low by global standards, but in our own time, when the standard of living is much higher, products that involve so much intensive hand labour may simply be no longer feasible economically.

This month though, because the publisher, carver, and printer are all one man, the equation can be made to balance ... so here you have the newest shin-hanga print to come into being! It's a long way from last month's Sukenobu sumizuri-e to this scene of a Hawaiian sea, but that's what these Surimono Albums are about - to bring you beautiful 'printed things' from all the long history of the Japanese woodblock printmaking tradition ... from three hundred years ago, right up to today, and everything in between ...

Will it turn out that traditional 'cooperative' woodblock printmaking in Japan is destined to die? Not if I can help it!

December 2001