Calling Mr. Holmes ...
Seems like 'Hokusai Month' here on 'A Story A Week'; he featured in both the two previous stories, and is coming back again today …
When I closed off that first story - mentioning that I would be getting 'up close' to his work - I wasn't kidding. In order to make the best quality print possible, I have to study an original copy very carefully. A wood-carver's work doesn't begin at the moment the knife hits the plank; it begins much earlier than that, with the preparation of what is known as a 'hanshita', the thin paper carrying the linework, that is pasted onto the wood to guide the carving. For simple reproductions, this may be prepared photographically, but for important or complex jobs it has to be done by hand.
The Great Wave has been reproduced (and forged) countless times down the years since it was first published (beginning in his own day), so identifying a true 'original' is pretty much impossible. For my current project, I am using as a reference a copy in a major museum that has satisfied most researchers (including myself) as being a very early print.
I prepare my hanshita by bringing a digital image of that old print into my computer, where I then trace over each and every one of the key-block lines, working at a very high level of enlargement. As I work, I can see extremely fine details, including many places where the original carver might have nicked a line, or wobbled with his knife. I touch these up in my tracing; there is no point in reproducing defects, and in any case, once I myself begin cutting, I will inevitably be introducing my own such defects.
The original print was damaged by insects in one corner, and somewhere along the line somebody patched it and touched up the eaten part with clumsy hand-painting. To obtain the missing details in that place, I use a scanned copy from yet another museum, also identified by researchers as 'an original'.
Comparing the two greatly enlarged master images on my wide computer screen is very enlightening. They are - on the face of it - the 'same', and if either of these were to be released to public auction it would certainly sell for a vast sum, and yet under the microscope it is clear that there are slight variations in every line - very very tiny, and certainly indistinguishable to the naked eye - but present nonetheless. These two 'original prints' were printed from different block sets.
Now there is nothing surprising about this; as I mentioned, this image has been reproduced many times. But this pair does indeed make quite a special pair - not only has each and every line been cut with the same shape and 'taste', but any number of tiny errors in the work have also been reproduced! And when the second carver was doing his work, he clearly knew that these were errors, so the instructions from his publisher must have been clear, "Make a copy that will fool people into thinking it is the original!"
There is no other possible explanation for seeing such things as: colour zones that extend just a smidgeon past the outlines in exactly the same areas, or a drop of foam that was forgotten on an underlying colour block in exactly the same place.
This of course brings up a hugely interesting question - is there any way to determine which one was the original?
At the moment, that's an open question. As I write this, I am perhaps about half-way across the image in my tracing work. I have developed a theory as to which of the two I think it might be, but I am trying not to get too settled into that viewpoint, lest I begin to ignore evidence contradicting it.
But what if I do come up with solid evidence showing the relationship between these two prints? Should I then write to the 'losing' museum, letting them know what I have found? I rather suspect that such a letter might not be received favourably!
Story #475, February 1, 2015
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