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Coloring Your Impression: Nuri-e

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

In this column's ongoing exploration of the lesser-known aspects of woodblock printmaking, and the intriguing variety of products the industry generated in its heyday, we arrive at what must surely must have been the humblest of all single sheet ukiyo-e — nuri-e, or coloring prints.

To be sure, nuri-e were not the only type of no-frill prints to reach the market in the mid-19th century; see Sumizuri-e and Oshi-e for variations on the keyblock-only theme. However, with their severely pared-down carving requirements (no background scenery or props), the thin, book-page quality washi they were printed on, and dimensions measuring a mere 13 by 20 cm (approx half the size of the already surface area-challenged chûban print), undernourished nuri-e were surely the cheapest of the cheap, the thriftiest way to own a stand-alone image of ukiyo life.

This was a crucial consideration since, as the (modern) name for them implies, a chief reason for editioning nuri-e was to supply ukiyo-friendly outlines for the more artistically-inclined among the kabuki and geisha-loving public. And while a fan could hope his brushwork was impeccable, or try to keep his children away from the paints, mistakes were bound to happen, making the hobbyist grateful of the low per piece price.

Oshi-e again

In addition to painting enthusiasts, nuri-e also appealed to the oshi-e crowd, budding Martha Stewarts who cut and pasted gorgeous kimono scraps to form pictures on paper. The article Oshi-e shows a chûban-size actor print appropriated for this craft, but in fact more often than not it was the smaller nuri-e that was the print of choice, if indeed any guideline print was used at all.

It is logical to surmise that non-artistic types bought nuri-e as well, thanks to their modest cost. Evidence of this lies in the percentage remaining that have not been subjected to either paint or paste. And buyers would not have been limited to impoverished folk, either.

Kyoto goods

It is crucial to remember that nuri-e were a publishing phenomenon seemingly confined to Kyoto, which (as opposed to Edo and Osaka) by mid-century had no standard print industry of its own Thus, most of the kabuki performances portrayed in nuri-e found no other memorialization; if you wanted a record of it, the do-it-yourself coloring print was the only alternative.

A case in point is Fig. 1. It illustrates the far right sheet of a triptych commemorating a performance of Kokusenya kassen (The Battles of Coxinga) in the Kyoto Kita theater in the seventh month of 1833, with the actor Iwai Shijaku playing Kinshojo.

Today, scholars are starved for such representations of Kyoto and regional kabuki performances. Alas, as with much cheap ephermera, nobody thought to preserve their family's "coloring books pages." Despite their original abundance very few nuri-e exist today.

nuri-e fig 1
Fig. 1

The signature on Fig. 1 is that of Harusada (aka Shuntei, 1798-1849). This artist is nown mainly for similar types of tiny format, low-end woodblocks. True, much more prestigious names like Nagahide and Shigeharu can sometimes appear, but they should be suspect; scholars find it hard to imagine illustrious artists stooping to the level of applying their hand to nuri-e.

Perhaps the Kyoto publishers had an arrangement to "borrow" well-known names to give their product an air of sophistication. Certainly the purveyors of these prints didn’t lack for pride: The lowest box along the left side of Fig. 1 assures the buyer that this print is the genuine article and one should accept no substitutes! Are we to imagine that there was a product on the market yet more primitive than this?

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 32, Autumn 2001. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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