Surimono. Poetic Greetings
On 7 March 2012, the State Hermitage Museum hosted the opening of an exhibit entitled Surimono. Poetic Greetings, which presented a series of restored Japanese colored wood block prints. This exhibit was the work of the museum's best restorers: M.G. Gambalevskaya, I.V. Guruleva, V.A. Kozyreva, O.V. Mashneva, M.V. Matveeva, N.A. Petushkova, E.V. Rudakas, T.A. Sabyanina, E.F. Tatarnikova, V.I. Hovanova, and E.I. Sashkova. These prints entered the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Prints from the holdings of the Department of the East at the State Hermitage Museum in 2008, and in 2011 the restoration was complete. 16 of the 36 restored prints were included in the exhibit.
The word "surimono" literally translates as "printed thing," it is essentially a print, but it is generally held to belong to the much narrower category of wood-block printing. The majority of the engravings published in Japan in the 18th-19th centuries for commercial purposes are described with the word "e" (picture) and an additional clarifying word. For example, tan-e, for red-colored pictures, beni-e for pictures printed with pink paint, or yakusya-e for depictions of actors, and musya-e for depictions of soldiers. The name surimono refers to prints produced in small numbers on private orders and not for sale, usually as a gift to friends. As a rule, they were ordered by members of poetry clubs, where were a widespread phenomenon during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and so a surimono composition would include not only an image, but also a poem, the others of where were the very poets who ordered them. The five line poems included in these prints belong to the Kyoka genre (which translates as "mad poems,") which was popular among the urban intellectual elite. Kyoka poems, on the one hand, followed the ancient poetic tradition, but on the other hand, were, in many ways, a parody. These witty, humorous poems included references to classical poetry, but also expanded the subjects that poets could address and also expanded their lexicon to include colloquialism. The images on surimono prints either served as direct illustrations of the poems or as artistic metaphors. The occasion for their creation might be the birthday of one of the poets, the anniversary of the founding of a club, or a commemorative concert; however, they were most often ordered for the New Year. It is precisely for this reason that these poems often refer to customs, items and phenomena that are associated with the beginning of Spring, when the lunar new year falls.
The earliest surimono prints appeared in Japan in the 1730s; however, they reached the peak of their popularity in the first third of the 19th century. The fact that they were made in limited quantities for private clients led to specific materials and techniques being used in these prints. Unlike mass-produced items, surimono prints were made on high quality paper, with expensive dyes and complex letting techniques, silver-plating and gilding. Unfortunately, few original versions have survived. Copies made by Japanese publishers in the 1890s for export have been preserved in the collections of many European and American museums. Republished prints are distinguished from originals by slightly lower quality. The publishers did not always repeat to expensive printing techniques used in the originals, and would sometimes change the background of the images or replace the original poems with new ones by contemporary poets.
The prints that were restored in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Prints belong to republished editions from the late 19th century. The prints were made on Japanese paper of a small format with unevenly cut edges. Before their restoration, these prints were carelessly glued to low-quality background with silicate-based glues. In some places, the glue had leaked out beyond the edges of the wood block print, remaining on the backing and partially contaminating the front of the prints. The prints had the sort of damage that is characteristic for paper materials; surface contamination, stains, and mechanical damage. The main cause of the damage to the prints that the restorers worked on, however, was the silicate glue and its consequences.
Unfortunately, after the silicate was removed, it was impossible to avoid the backing thinning noticeably in the more damaged areas, as a result of the crystals of the glue penetrating deeply into the structure of the paper. The work of restoring the paper backing in the damaged areas also turned out to be labor-intensive.
Particular difficulties were involved in local and general moulding, which is necessary for patching areas of deformation. Producing raised finishing of a quality appropriate to the Japanese materials (the lettering is one of the distinguishing artistic features of this type of printing) proved to be challenging. Preserving reliefs during moulding is one of the operations that distinguish successful restoration.
Certain details of the images had almost lost their color, which could only be identified from a specific angle, thanks to overhanging fragments of the drawing. The restorers conducted toning on the areas damaged by the glue; this is considered one of the most important stages of restoration work. Watercolor looks very unnatural in such places. The restorers had to focus on causing the minimum possible color change by applying the watercolor, while still removing as many crystal of silicate glue from the paper backing as possible.
The final stage of the work involved the restoration of the "false" margins, the so-called "margining" process. Margins made of Japanese paper were attached to each sheet, making it possible to restore their initial format. This method is widely used by restorers around the world. For printed graphics with cut edges, "margining" is the final stage of conservation before matting. After the restoration and margining was completed, all 36 prints were in uniform, complete condition.
After a long, labor-intensive process, carried out by the artists/restorers of the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Prints, it became possible to hold an exhibit of these colored Japanese wood block prints, and present the museum's surimono collection to the public.
The curator of this exhibit is Anna Vasilyeva Savelyeva, academic associate
of the Department of the East of the State Hermitage Museum.