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Back to Basics: The Baren Facts

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

For years now, every time a potter friend enters my living room, he has lifted the sushi platter off its stand and repositioned it so as to display its underside! He claims this is the more alluring face of the slab, as it reveals the character of the clay body and the sweep of the flame in the wood fire kiln. In other words, the ceramist is behaving like a true Japanese, forever anxious to have raw material speak for itself, and glad to see evidence of physical processes at work.

With classic woodblock prints, the backside can hardly be considered as intriguing as the front, but collectors do develop the habit of turning ukiyo-e over to see what can be learned there.

At one level, the verso is the place to identify repairs, and also find out if the piece has been backed, an unfortunate and all-too-common occurrence at some point in the lifetime of a print. More intriguingly, it is also where one finds an eloquent record of the printer's handiwork.

The baren facts

After a block has been inked and paper laid over it, the printer transfers the pigment by rubbing the back of the paper with a tool called a baren. This is a flat disk about 13 cm across, outfitted on one side with twisted strands of bamboo cord and a bamboo leaf, and a lacquer cover on the other.

The irregular surface of the coiled bamboo (today ball bearings are often used) leaves tracings of the baren"s vigorous, mostly circular movements over the paper, lines which are especially visible when the pigment is jet black. Until the 20th century such markings were considered best restricted to the back of the print, but that does not mean they have not been long appreciated by lovers of the woodblock-printing process.

Verso secrets

Fig. 1, dated 1832, shows the Kabuki actor Arashi Rikan II (1788-1837) strikingly depicted by the Osaka artist Shunkôsai Hokuei (fl. 1827-37). Rikan's figure, Danshichi Kurobei (note the flame-tongued snake tattoo), is seething with anger and is about to murder his father-in-law, who has just crawled away in terror, leaving hand- and footprints in the mud.

The potency of this piece (which graces the cover of a major book by print scholar Roger Keyes) is due to many factors, but perhaps chief among them is the richness and density of the pitch black background, one of the hallmarks of Osaka printmaking.

Turning the work over (Fig. 2) reveals how the paper could lift so much ink off the block. Various kinds of circular, looped, back and forth, and other rhythmical motions were combined to achieve this saturation; both the physical prowess and finesse of the printer are very clear.

Keep in mind that such delicately controlled effort had to be sustained over 100s of pulls, and we see why master printers were sometimes allowed to place their seal on the front of the print, beside those of the designer and carver.

Large edition numbers also help us understand another point. If we compare two different impressions of the same design, the business side invariably looks quite similar, but the baren patterns on the back can differ greatly in nature.

For example, a second copy of Danshichi betrays printer arm motions that are less rounded, more irregular and almost herky-jerky in appearance. Perhaps this means the man"s muscles had grown weary and his routine needed to be varied. Or it may mean several printers had a hand in the Danshichi edition.

Nobody — not even my potter friend — has suggested that ukiyo-e be routinely displayed on the wall back to front though this would help preserve the print"s colors. However, once or twice I have discussed with my framer a compromise idea — a see-through back panel!

Hokuei front
Fig. 1


Hokuei reverse
Fig. 2


This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 40, Autumn 2004. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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