Surimono prints were the focus of the exhibition “The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints” on display at the Chester Beatty Library in the spring-summer 2017. This exhibition of 95 single prints and poetry books from the collection gave us a chance to study in detail the making, techniques and materials of Japanese woodblock prints, especially focusing on the more elaborate Surimono.
The most lavish of Japanese prints, the quality and refinement of Surimono appealed greatly to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. He acquired the greater part of his Surimono collection- a collection that is considered one of finest in the world- between 1954 and 1963, having already moved his Library to Dublin.
The word Surimono means simply ‘printed thing’. Prepared as gifts for exchange among friends and acquaintances at New Year and on other special occasions, these privately-published prints were products of the flourishing literary culture of Edo Japan. The Surimono commissioned by poetry circles in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combine short verses composed at poetry gatherings with designs prepared by leading artists. Taking their subjects from the scholar’s desk and the literary canons of Japan and China, Surimono embody the eloquence and amity of these cultivated salons and offer a glittering glimpse into a world rich in playful allusion.
Because of its small audience and private funding, Surimono artists and printers could produce exquisitely refined prints with delicacy and great care. They were usually limited to between 50 and 150 copies.
The basic printing technique used to create Surimono prints was similar to the commercial Ukiyo-e prints although the Surimono prints appear to be much more intricate in design. They exhibit finer and much more elaborate details, more colours, more patterns, more blocks and therefore no expense was spared.
Japanese woodblock printing is a technique which involves the use of many different blocks of wood to produce one multi-colour print. The wood commonly used for the block is a hard cherry wood which was prepared and planed to achieve a smooth surface. The age of the block and the preparation had a direct impact on the finish achieved in the prints.
The design is first drawn on paper and then pasted face down with a starch paste onto a wooden block so that the design is reversed, ready to be carved and printed the right way up. The block carver then cuts the design into the block by preserving the raised motif which will be printed.
The key block (Omohan) was produced first. It was printed in black and at this point annotated by the artist to describe which colours should be used where. With this decided, the other blocks for the different colours were carved.
Kento is the registration system traditionally used by Japanese printmakers. It includes two parts, the hikitsuke kento (line stop) and kagi kento (key). Multi-colour woodblock prints require a separate block for each colour, and the kento marks insure the blocks are aligned with precision to print the colours on the paper.
To prepare for printing, the pigments were mixed with water and sometimes animal glue (nikawa) in ceramic bowls. The block was moistened first and the pigment was applied with a brush onto the surface of the woodblock. There are different type of brushes available depending on the size of the area to be coloured and the desired effects. For example, tonal gradation could be achieved at this stage by using dampened cloth or water brushes to apply the pigment to the block.
The printing paper was dampened before being positioned onto the block using the kento marks. Next the back of the sheet was rubbed over the coloured block using the baren, a circular printing pad. The process of applying the colourants onto the block and rubbing them into the paper with the baren was repeated until the desired colour saturation was obtained.
The paper used for Surimono prints is a kozo paper with strong fibres that tends to be heavier and more absorbent than the paper used for commercial prints. It is believed to be unsized, although a small amount of sizing might have been used to avoid smudging of the colourants in the areas that are printed.
The full sheet of o-bosho paper or “presentation paper” is 39 x 53.5 cm but was not commonly used as a whole. Rather the sheet would have been cut into different sized pieces, following established patterns to obtain different formats. The most common format is Shikishi-ban, an almost square sheet about 21 x 19 cm, which became the standard for Surimono printing and was rarely used for Ukiyo-e prints.
There are two important differences to note between commercial Ukiyo-e and Surimono which are central to understanding Surimono. The first one is to emphasize Surimono prints as luxury objects with extensive use of precious materials. These include the heavy, unsized paper and the use of mica powder and metal pigments. The prints were also more labour intensive to produce, using more elaborate techniques. Surimono printers used the highest quality and the finest materials available as well as showing off their finest printing skills.
The second major difference is that the poem which accompanied each image was carved into a separate block than the key block, by a wood carver specialising in cutting script. This block would usually display the finest lines and imitate calligraphy perfectly.
The use of metal pigment is common on Surimono prints. However, real gold and silver are rarely found. Instead brass, copper and tin are quite frequently used, sometimes as a background, but quite often to highlight small areas of the design. The metal powder was mixed with large amounts of animal glue (nikawa) and printed on the paper last to avoid transfers of the large metal particles onto the paper during the printing process.
Mica (kira) is composed of phyllosilicate minerals. The white luminescent appearance was used to highlight prints. A mixture of glue, usually a gum, and the mica powder was applied to the block and then printed gently with the baren. It was sometimes applied above a coloured ground or mixed with the pigment before printing. Another method is to cut a stencil, place it over the print, and brush the glue directly onto the paper and lightly apply the mica powder onto it and brush any excess off once dry.
Maybe the most striking difference between ukiyo-e prints and Surimono is the extensive use of embossing-a technique which is not commonly used in ukiyo-e. There are a number of ways in which this was achieved.
Blind printing (Karazuri) is a form of printing without the use of any pigment. The technique involves carving a pattern into a woodblock and then printing it in the usual way, but without any pigment. The pressure of the baren on the back of the paper causes part of the paper to be squeezed between the wood and the baren, and flattened. This type of embossing is the most common and the one often used for highlights.
In areas of Surimono where the embossing appears to be coloured, it means that the pigment has been applied before the embossing, multiplying the amount of work necessary.
Convex embossing (Kimedashi) was produced by removing a concave area in the block and pressing the piece of paper over it. The paper is pushed down into the carved spaces of the block and moulded into a new shape. This type of embossing was often used for larger areas where the mark of the embossing is visible at the verso and the paper does not remain flat.
The exhibition and the catalogue were a real dive into a marvelous world of beauty and luxury. Because privately commissioned, cost was no object and this shows in the wealth of techniques and materials that the artist, wood carvers and printers used to produce the Surimono prints. Leading artists such as Hokusai and other prestigious Ukiyo-e artists dedicated large portions of their work producing these refined Surimono prints.
Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator