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Sumizuri-e: More than Meets the Eye?

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Hirosada sumizuri-e
Fig. 1

One thing that seems to keep connoisseurs fascinated with classic woodblock prints is the maze-like path to understanding. Incredibly, despite a century of serious scholarship on three continents, many questions surrounding those delicate sheets of paper from Edo-period Japan are still open to speculation, and collectors can expect uncertainties around almost any corner.

A case in point is the pair of prints illustrated here, two editions of a half-size bust portrait of a kabuki actor acquired in the infancy of my collecting. While the designer (the popular and prolific Osaka artist Hirosada) and date (the late 1840s, a time when actors' names were left off prints to stay clear of sumptuary laws) were easy to determine, I was more curious about something else. It is the color print to which the more serious market value is always attached, but black and white versions are infinitely rarer. What was the function of these key block prints? Who used them? And where do they fall in the chronology of an edition?

I reasoned (naively) that I only had to ask the experts, and that's when the fun began. The first scholar I visited surmised such black and whites were produced solely for in-house use: for publisher stock books, or perhaps for the artist to write in color preferences. The second showed evidence that they were made for women to sew fabric on (a charming handicraft in Japan), and also for children to practice coloring with. The third talked about how publishers may have catered to the low end of the market with these prints, and the fourth — here I was getting to the bottom of the local academic barrel — felt that they were used by actors as free hand-outs for backstage johnnies.

Hirosada nishiki-e
Fig. 2

Their answers could all be right, of course, as black and whites may have been pulled at different stages of the run, but solid evidence of any kind appears to be slight or non-existent. Also, practices may have been different between Osaka and Edo. This was altogether a revelation; how much we still don't know about the complex world of print-making.

P.S. Ultimately, the one point the experts all agreed on was the most important one for me: that collectors never find both versions at the same time and that I could only be described as extremely lucky. Such a discovery, two averred, may even cause them to alter their theories.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 9, Winter 1996. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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