Morning Glories

The morning glory
   Twining round the well handle ...
      Next door for water!

I mentioned at the end of last month's little story that I had a beautiful design selected this time, and now that you see it, I hope you agree ...

Who drew it? I can't tell you; the colophon page of my copy of the little book from which it comes has been partially torn away, and the designer's name (if indeed it was actually included on that page) is missing. The date of publication is still visible - Meiji 23, or 1890, as is the title - Bijutsu Gafu, or 'Art Album'. It is subtitled Kacho Sansui, 'Nature and Landscape', but this is somewhat misleading, because the content of the book ranges farther than these traditional themes.

I found it in an old bookshop in Kyoto last year; Sadako and I were browsing through the shelves looking for anything interesting and she pulled this book down and passed it to me "This looks worthwhile ..." It certainly did, and I purchased it without hesitation. Well, that's the first part of the story behind this print, but there is more to mention ...

The little book was printed in only black - none of the images were coloured. But no sooner had the idea arisen to use this image in my Surimono Album, than the colours too came to life in my mind. I don't mean the exact shades that you see here, they came later; I mean the general style of the colouring. During the long history of traditional Japanese printmaking, the way that prints have been coloured has passed through many styles. Many of these were influenced by the particular pigments available at certain times and not at others, while others had their origin in the preferences of some particular artist, or some particular publisher.

Differences in style are striking, and well marked. Somebody who knows Japanese prints well can identify the era in which any print was made even if all but a couple of square centimeters of the surface is hidden from view. The particular pigments used, the way that they have been prepared, the colour combinations created by the printers, all these provide clear signposts to identify a print. The most obvious and (in)famous example would be that of the time in the Meiji era when imported foreign dyes became commonly used in printmaking. The resulting garish prints are unmistakable from a hundred yards away!

Towards the end of the Meiji era yet another new colour style appeared, in the breathtakingly beautiful creations of the publisher Takejiro Hasegawa. Hasegawa's particular market was the foreigner interested in 'things Japanese', and he produced books and prints for sale both here in Japan to tourists, and overseas in bookshops and at exhibitions. He published a wide variety of items: books of Japanese fairy tales (in English, Spanish, French and German), calendars of Japanese scenery, books of translated Japanese poetry with images, and many other similar products.

And the colour style he created? How can I describe it ... very clean, very delicate; a range of pastel shades that had never appeared in Japanese prints before; gradations of a subtlety previously unknown ... I have a small collection of his books here in my workshop, and visitors who see them are always bowled over by their beauty.

It is this Hasegawa style that I had in mind when I set to work to produce this month's print for you. Did I succeed? Well, I think I have captured some of the cleanliness of a Hasegawa print, but not much of the subtlety I am afraid ... I rather suspect that if I had handed this in to old Hasegawa as a proof copy, he would have passed it back saying "Close, but you haven't quite got the idea ... better let somebody with a bit more experience take over ..."

Well, these days there simply isn't anybody with 'a bit more experience' at making this kind of print. I have never seen them reproduced, and I can never understand why; I myself find their simple but subtle beauty completely captivating. I keep a list of 'prints I'd like to make' (a list that endlessly grows and grows), and there are a lot of Hasegawa san's products on it! Maybe before I'm done I'll be able to make a print that would meet with his approval!

September 2002

David