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Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
"The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge"
Part.1 -About the work-

January 18, 2021

Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
"The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge"
Part.1 -About the work-

Adachi just launched the new series of the articles, "Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-'' where we pick one ukiyo-e artist and his works to talk about such an artist, his prints, how the print was produced, and so on.

The first artist of this new series is Suzuki Harunobu who is stated as "father of Nishiki-e (which means multicolor woodcut print beautiful as the colorful brocade)" and one of his masterpieces, "The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge" which depicts a beautiful night scene with a young couple attempting to snap the branch of the white plum tree. We would like to talk about how Harunobu's dreamy and lovely worlds were created in two parts, Part 1. -About the work- and Part 2. -About the production-.

We talk about the print itself and its background in this article of Part 1. -About the work-.

■ Suzuki Harunobu, "Father of Nishiki-e"

Suzuki Harunobu was born in 1725 in Edo (Current Tokyo) and became a very popular ukiyo-e artist around 1765. The year of 1765 is very important in the ukiyo-e history because it is the year that the registration marks were invented by Harunobu. His invention of registration marks made multicolor printing happen and accelerated the improvement of woodcut printing techniques with the revolutionary speed. Two registration marks are carved on the woodblock where the printer places the paper at the exact same place and it makes consistent multicolor prints with the perfect alignment. This is the reason why Harunobu is called "father of multicolor woodcut print". Harunobu produced many works, but actually he worked as an ukiyo-e artist only about 10 years until he suddenly passed away at the age of 45.

※Registration marks: Two slits carved on the wood block. The depth of the slit is only the thickness of one paper. 

■ The birth of Nishiki-e (multi-color woodcut print) and the picture calendar

What drove Harunobu's invention of the registration mark was the popularity of Egoyomi (the picture calendar). Egoyomi, the picture calendar became very popular for wealthy, sophisticated and well educated people around 1765. Their custom to create their own calendars and give them to people in the same poem group as a new year's greeting became very popular. Harunobu was their favorite ukiyo-e artist and driven a lot by their desire to make a more elaborate calendar than any people in the group. Harunobu's clients had no limit of the cost for their order made calendars since it was not for a commercial purpose. Therefore Harunobu could produce more elaborate prints with more processes and expensive materials, which helped him to invent many elaborate techniques of carving and printing.

The publisher who had seen the popularity of the multicolor prints among wealthy people attempted to use the same techniques for everybody's prints. People who saw the colorful prints in real for the first time were so astonished. It did not take so long for multicolor prints to become also for ordinal people in Edo.
"A Young Woman
in Summer Shower

<This print was produced as a
picture calendar originally.>

<Harunobu's picture calendar "A Young Woman in a Summer Shower">

This print was produced as a picture calendar for the year of 1760. The letters "大、二、三、五、六、八、十、メ、イ、ワ、二" are hidden in the pattern of kimono hanged on the wash line pole and the letters, "乙、ト、リ" are hidden in the pattern of the woman's belt. It was like a sophisticated quiz.

■ "The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge"
    Harunobu's masterpiece inspired by a waka poem

"The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge" is one of Harunobu's masterpieces. It is the piece inspired by a waka poem written around 1086 and Harunobu depicted a young couple attempting to snap the branch of the white plum tree. The plum branch must be a gift for the lady who is looking at a young man. The pitch black of the background is expressing it is a night scene. A waka poem which is written about the plum tree and the stream underneath is placed on the top of the print.
The plum tree with blossoms was a very popular motif in ukiyo-e as well as cherry blossoms and Harunobu often depicted it with the characters. The plum blossoms are very fragrant and we feel as if it reaches us through the print by Harunobu's skillful expression. It is Harunobu's magic to bring us into his dreamy world in his every single print.   

■ People living in Harunobu's dreamy world

The characters whom Harunobu portrayed in his works are always slender, looking fragile and genderless. These character designs are distinctively different from the design of Utamaro who was active after Harunobu's time.
<Suzuki Harunobu・"The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge">   <Kitagawa Utamaro・"Girl Blowing a Glass Toy">

Harunobu carefully portrayed facial expressions of a couple in "The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge". Two people seem to look at the same object, but actually what they are looking at are different. A young man is looking at the branch of the plum tree which he is attempting to snap, but the young lady is looking at him whom she likes. Like this, Harunobu expresses even such delicate emotions between characters with their facial expressions.  
  Since Harunobu's characters have very small and delicate faces, fingers and toes, carving the wood block of Harunobu's prints requires extremely high skills. Only the first class carver can fully translate Harunobu's brush strokes. 

We hope you enjoyed our new series of articles "Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-'' starting with Suzuki Harunobu and his masterpiece, "The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge". In the next article of Part 2. -About the production-, we will talk about this print from the perspective of the traditional woodcut printmaker.

Harunobu's works always have a very distinctive atmosphere which can only be created by him. His world is clean and genderess, but the characters are portrayed with a hint of Eros which leaves the viewers being obsessed with his worlds. We reproduce a number of Harunobu's prints. Please come back to check them out at Adachi's website.

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