The Biwa 'Seizan'

To open this fifth Surimono Album I have chosen a 'classical' surimono design in the shikishiban format, created in about 1820 by Totoya Hokkei, whose work has appeared twice before in these albums (and will undoubtedly appear again in the future!). It is one print from a series of five images entitled Gogyo, or Five Elements. In this series, the images and poems pick up themes from the group of five elements the ancient Chinese considered to make up the world around us: fire, earth, metal, water and - the substance depicted here - wood. The items selected by the artist and poets to represent wood are a plum branch and a biwa, a Japanese lute. But this is not just any biwa, this is the famous 'Seizan', the instrument that we read about in the Tale of the Heike. When Tsunemasa was being raised at the temple Ninna-ji, he was given this biwa. As with every aspect of that epic old tale though, this too would 'end in tears', and we read that years later, at the moment of his death, the strings of the biwa spontaneously broke, and it would never be played again ... by mortals. The noh play 'Tsunemasa' depicts the episode where the ghost of Tsunemasa visits his own funeral service, and finding that Seizan has been laid on the funeral altar as an offering for him, performs on it one final time, before returning to the netherworld ...

Even though the theme of the print is 'wood', a biwa with such a splendid history could of course not be depicted in a surimono print in a plain and simple fashion - so the old printers used three different metals for decorating the instrument. I can't clearly identify the substances they used back then, but I have used copper powder for the strings, bronze for the gold coloured sky above the mountain, and platinum leaf for the silver moon. Please don't get too excited by that word 'platinum' ... this metal is indeed expensive, but the amount in your copy of this print is only a tiny fraction of a gram!

I had originally thought about using silver leaf for decorative parts of these surimono prints, so I did some experiments some time ago to see how it would stand up over time. I applied silver to a few sheets of paper then stored them in various places around my workshop, some open to the air, some protected in an album. Over a period of a couple of years, they all became heavily oxidized and turned quite an unattractive colour. Whether this is an observation on the quality of our air here in Tokyo, or whether this would happen anywhere, I can't really say, but this was enough to convince me that untreated silver isn't suitable for these prints. Platinum, I am given to understand, will remain 'silvery' pretty much indefinitely.

I have used powdered metals on a number of previous prints, but this is the first one in which I have used 'leaf', and with such a small area being covered, it was an excellent chance to learn how to handle and apply it. My appetite has been whetted somewhat, and I'm looking forward to the time when I can take on the challenge of reproducing one of those magnificent Gakutei surimono prints that uses metal leaf as a full background ...

But that won't be next month. As long-time collectors of my work know, the second print in every series is a bijin-ga ('beautiful woman picture'), and I have a most interesting design selected, one that I am sure you will not have seen before. More than that I won't say though; you know my policy - the pleasure of having the set come to life one print at a time as you receive them is a major part of the enjoyment of these albums. At least it is for me!

Thank you for joining my project this year ...

April 2003

David