Seductive Marvels of Japanese Art– Materials and Techniques of Surimono Prints  

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.

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“The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints,” an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library.

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.

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CBL J 2078, Writing Table, by Gakutei.

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.

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Details of Surimono prints showing the intricacy of the design.

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.

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The initial drawing is adhered to the wood block (left); the wood carver cutting into the wood to created the raised motif (right).

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.

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The Kento Registration System.

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.

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The printer applying pigment to the block (left); and then applying pressure to paper with the baren to print the design (right).

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.

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CBL J 2107 Shikishi-ban format.

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.

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Detail of CBL J 2107 showing a variety of effects used to reproduce different fabrics.

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.

 

 

 

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CBL J 2078, Fluidity of the line of text.

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.

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CBL J 2313, Use of mica powder to highlight the body of the watch.

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.

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CBL J 2284, Blind embossing and coloured embossing.

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.

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CBL J 2102, Convex embossing on the wine flask (left and centre), is especially visible with raking light on the verso of the print (right).

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CBL J 2179, Mount Fuji, by Hokusai

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

 

 

 

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Reflections on links between Conservation in Dublin and Tokyo

While preparing for the current exhibition on display in our temporary gallery, The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints (3 March– 27 August 2017), and the supporting gallery rotation in our permanent galleries, I was drawn back to my experience as a participant at the ICCROM Japanese Paper Conservation programme in 2015.

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CBL J 1154 on display in the Arts of the Book gallery

One of the painted handscrolls, Poetry Contest of the Zodiac Animals (Junirui uta awase emaki) CBL J 1154, was selected for display and installed in the permanent galleries to support the current print exhibition which focuses on Japan’s poetry circles. Between 1994 and 1995, the mid-17th century scroll was conserved at the Handa Kyūseidō Studio, Tokyo National Museum, courtesy of the Hirayama Art Research Foundation. Although having been conserved nearly 20 years ago, the scroll is still in perfect condition.

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CBL J 1154 before (left) and after conservation (centre & right) by the Handa Kyūseidō Studio.

As I was installing this beautiful scroll, I remembered with great delight my extra curricula visit to the Handa Kyūseidō conservation studio in September 2015. Set in a peaceful neighbourhood of Tokyo, I was given a comprehensive tour of the traditional conservation studio by Ikuko Handa, the head of conservation at the studio, and Makoto Kawabata, senior calligraphy and archive conservator at the studio and my course tutor.

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Makoto Kawabata, senior calligraphy and archive conservator and IICROM course tutor, demonstrating use of the karibari.

The visit was organised thanks to Keiko Furumoto. Keiko was the first Heritage Council conservation intern at the National Library of Ireland in 2007 and she has been working at the Handa Kyūseidō studio since returning to Japan. Since completing her internship, she has regularly returned to Ireland and made one of these visits in early April 2015 – around the same time I found out I had been accepted for the JPC course- so we kept in touch regarding a possible visit to her workplace in Tokyo.

The Handa Kyūseidō studio is set-up across 3 separate floors. The ground floor is a reception and digitisation area, the first floor is dedicated to the conservation of painted hanging scrolls, hand-scrolls and folding screens and the second floor to archive (historical documents), calligraphy and book conservation. Although it is located in a modern building, the studio is everything one would expect from a traditional Japanese conservation studio: low work tables, tatami mats, paste bowls and sieves, drawers full of Japanese repair papers and of course, karibari boards of all sizes lining the walls!

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Julia preparing a handscroll at the ICCROM JPC course (left), and a traditional paste bowl and brushes (right).

It was a wonderful opportunity for the Chester Beatty to reconnect with the prestigious studio, as during the 1990’s the Handa Kyūseidō Studio was also responsible for the restoration of one of the great treasures of the Library, a pair of Japanese picture scrolls entitled Illustrated Scroll of the Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Chōgonka gakan) CBL J 1158 and the beautiful hanging scroll on silk Portrait of the Bodhisattva Jizō (Jizō zō) CBL J 1214.

The funding for this conservation treatment was provided by the Joint Council for the Conservation and Restoration of Ancient Japanese Art Works in Foreign Collections, a council made up of The Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, the Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties and the Art Research Foundation and supported by the Tokyo National Museum.

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Participants of the ICCROM JPC 2015 course in Kyoto.

I am very grateful to Head of Conservation, Ikuko Handa for her kindness and generosity in facilitating my visit, and my tutor Makoto Kawabata for showing me his work outside of the ICCROM JPC course setting. I am also grateful to Keiko Furumoto for acting as a wonderful tour guide and translator during my visit.

Julia Poirier,  Book and Paper Conservator

The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints

The Chester Beatty Library’s collection of surimono and picture calendars extends to some 375 single sheet prints. Alongside these are the kyōka books and a further 116 surimono with illustrations in the Shijō style popular in Osaka and Kyoto, many of which are preserved in albums. The greater part of this collection was formed between 1954 and 1963.

Acquired by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty for his newly built Library in Dublin, the collection took shape under the specialist guidance of Jack Hillier and Beatty’s own developing interests in Japan’s printed arts. As works created through the collaboration of artists and poets in celebration of new beginnings, it is fitting that these prints were collected in that same spirit.

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J 2183 before (above) and after conservation (below)

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Ireland: an event precipitated in March 1957 by an exchange of letters between the Japanese and Irish ambassadors in London. The Chester Beatty Library is marking this anniversary with a special exhibition The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints (March 3 – August 27 2017). Dr Mary Redfern, curator of East Asian collections, selected 95 single surimono prints for exhibition and a number of poetry anthologies and surimono albums all from the Library’s own collections and many by leading artists such as Hokusai and Gakutei. This new exhibition focuses on the surimono and the literati circles that created them.

The Library received a generous grant from the American Friends of the Arts in Ireland (AFAI) which enabled the Chester Beatty Library to conserve, mount and frame all the prints and related material currently on display.

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The overall condition of the surimono collection is very good. The prints were all carefully mounted when the Library received funding for a conservator to travel to Dublin from Tokyo to advise and oversee the project. The mount card used nearly 40 years ago was conservation quality but quite thin and lightweight, so offered little support during handling and would not have prevented the prints touching the glass when framed for exhibition. The window apertures had been cut without a bevel, and overlapped the edges of the prints, hiding precious details of the images from scholars and visitors. The decision was therefore made to remove them from their historic mounts, and transfer them to new standard size mounts made from heavier (1650 micron) acid-free, buffered Conservation Board.

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J 2171 Before (left) and after conservation (right)

The prints had been attached to the previous mounts with conservation standard handmade Japanese paper tabs, so these were gently lifted from the backboards and retained where possible. Each print was then gently surface cleaned using soft brushes.

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Removing J 2171 from its old mount, and gently surface cleaning.

The prints were then carefully measured and in order to fully reveal the detail of the surimono, the new bevelled-edge apertures were cut slightly larger than each object so that the entire print could be seen. In order to mount the prints in this way, additional Japanese paper tabs were attached to the bottom edge of each print with wheat starch paste. These additional tabs along the bottom edge allow the prints to ‘float’ in the aperture, whilst the tabs hold them safely in place under the bevelled window.

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Applying new tabs to the tail edge of J 2171

The surimono were then carefully positioned in their new mounts, and the uppermost Japanese paper tabs were secured to the backboard, again using wheat starch paste and dried under weights.

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Mounting J 2171

New mahogany-coloured frames were ordered and each print selected for exhibition was framed by the team. Bespoke archival boxes have been ordered to house the collection while in long-term storage.

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Mounting and framing the conserved surimono prints in the lab.

The seven bound volumes to be included in the exhibition were all in good condition. They were surface cleaned and minor tear repairs carried out where necessary. Bespoke acrylic cradles were made to exactly fit the opening of each volume. These were then installed in three display cases in the Library’s Temporary exhibition Gallery.

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Four bound volumes on display.

Finally, the framed prints were hung in the gallery ready for the opening on 3rd March.HangingThanks to the generous grant provided by the American Friends of the Arts in Ireland, the Chester Beatty Library has been able to ensure the long-term preservation of this rare and beautiful collection.

The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints runs from March 3 until August 27, 2017. We hope you’ll have the chance to visit the exhibition over the holidays.