A photo in my newspaper caught my eye the other day; it was on the sports pages, and was a snapshot of a batter who had just hit a home run. I guess he had watched the flight of the ball, and at the moment that it became clear it was going to go over the fence, his face had registered surprise. It seems that even he had been somewhat amazed by what he had just done!
Well, that's the same kind of situation we have in today's story!
It happened a few years ago when I was over in the US, attending a 'get-together' of woodblock printmakers. There were many activities planned during the time we were there: some people gave demonstrations, others worked at making prints, others arranged print or tool exchanges, and many also made visits to local museums or other places of interest.
I joined one of those museum visits one afternoon, because I knew that the institution in question had a good collection of woodblock prints and related items. There were a dozen or so of us on the trip, and when we arrived, the curator showed us around, giving us a good overview of the collection, and then gave us free run of the place. After browsing through the pictures on public display, a number of us gathered in a study room, where the staff had arranged a kind of private display of many interesting items from their collection.
Among these was one that caught my eye, and the curator took particular interest in showing it to me. It was an old carved woodblock, smeared here and there with a yellowish pigment. It was a single colour block remaining from a set that had been used to make a Japanese woodblock print sometime in the past. He knew nothing of its provenance, or what print it 'belonged' to. He said that over the years they had showed it to all the experts who had visited their facility, but nobody had been able to come up with any ideas on what it might be.
When he first told me this, I concurred with his view that it would be pretty much impossible to learn much more. About all I was able to add to his information at first was that the block actually wasn't as old as he thought; my experience with really old blocks - which are always heavily browned with age - led me to believe that this one was mid-20th century. As for what print it might belong to, that was simply 'mission impossible'; a key block might be recognizable from the outlines of the figures depicted, but a colour block, which amounts to nothing more than a few 'random' shapes scattered here and there, is a different matter. I shrugged my shoulders, but anyway, sat down to study it for a bit, to see what I could glean.
A minute or so later, I noticed something interesting about the carved patterns - they did actually seem a bit familiar. There was something not quite 'Japanese' about the shapes, and the colour too, was a bit different from what one would normally see on a Japanese print. A minute later, something clicked - this was perhaps a block for one of the woodblock prints of Paul Jacoulet, a Frenchman who lived in Japan in the middle of the 20th century, and who hired craftsmen to make many prints from his designs. The more I looked at it, the more it looked like Jacoulet, and another couple of minutes later - after mentally parsing through remembered images of his prints - I had it; the patterns matched one of his most famous designs, a print of a young woman dressed in a colourful Chinese ceremonial dress.
I asked the museum staff if they had a copy of a research volume on Jacoulet's work, and when they brought it to me, we opened it to the page illustrating that image, and found that yes, the pattern on this piece of wood matched exactly. With just a couple of minutes looking at this piece of wood with a few randomly carved patterns on it, I had - entirely from memory - plucked out from the entire history of Japanese prints the exact one that matched.
I guess we're not supposed to 'brag' about our own achievements (especially here in Japan!), but this story is just too good to keep to myself! (Although I know what this will now lead to - another 'challenge' to identify a random block, which will almost certainly end with an ignominious, 'I don't know!')
Story #254, November 7 2010
I don't have a copy of that print (way too expensive for me!), but here is a scan from a book on Jacoulet's work (enlargeable):