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All the Trimmings: Margin Call

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Fig. 1


The Daruma 45 article (Restoration) discussed the significance of condition when evaluating a print, and mentioned the issue of trimming, a sad affliction which, to one extent or another affects the vast majority of 19th century ukiyo-e.

The main reason for so many reduced dimensions (often a centimeter or two or more lopped off) was the propensity of collectors in the Edo period to mount their prints in albums.

Mounting techniques varied, but the most common ones result in loss of paper on two sides — due either to the interlocking sheet cutting and pasting process itself, or to the inability to separate individual sheets cleanly when an album eventually gets broken up. Top and bottom areas of the prints often wind up trimmed as well, probably thanks to the tendency — still prevalent in Japan today — to make the finished package as compact as possible.

There seem to have been few rules or restraints regarding trimming; folk blithely snipped away at their Hiroshige's and Sadanobu's as readily as we digitally crop our vacation snapshots with the click of a button in Adobe Photoshop.

When a woodblock's design incorporated a printed line border, many would halt their blades there. But if the demarcation was less obvious, color fields and lines stretching unevenly toward the edge — actually a hallmark of the medium — much more of the interior was at risk. With extreme Edo Scissorhands types only the central portion of the composition was safe.

Paper, scissors, irony

Present-day print enthusiasts recoil in horror at all this, and yet we must be grateful to the album makers, too. In an irony of art history, without the creation of the albums with their semi-durable covers there would be very few prints still clean and unfaded.

Being mounted in an album does not guarantee a print surviving with its original look intact, of course. How often the album was thumbed through and where it was stored play huge roles in determining that. But it does greatly increase the chances compared to the usual alternatives of the age.

For example, ukiyo-e once made into hanging scrolls or glued onto folding screens today appear severely toned and brittle, if not torn, punctured and water-stained. And those that were pasted together in continuous rolls (makimono) are invariably ragged, wrinkled and riddled with wormholes.

As for the prints left stacked for decades on storehouse shelves: In addition to many of the above problems, count on their showing signs of mildew and accumulated grime, and occasionally chew marks and fecal insults from rodents and cockroaches.

Indeed, once you have seen how wretched an ukiyo-e sheet can look after exposure to air, light, dust and bugs, you may stop cursing the collectors who sliced a few centimeters off their prints in the innocent pursuit of portability.

Margin Calls

And customization. Ukiyo-e, after all, were simply bromides, and we can imagine that many compilers enjoyed crafting their personal albums, even feeling a little re-design improved the raw material offered by the publishers.

Looking at Fig. 1, for example, a chûban actor bust portrait diptych laid down in an album, you can almost still align yourself with the thinking process of the original Osakan collector.

The townsman may have wished to show off as much as possible of his fancy album paper, so he opted to get rid of the margins, which anyway spoiled the contrast between the jet-black sumi sky and gold-flecked borders.

Margin strips framing bust portraits were mostly reserved for publisher or bookseller marks, plus sometimes the sequence number of the print within a multi-ptych — information coveted by scholars today but as useless to the 1840's kabuki fan as the outside-the-perforations symbols on a sheet of postage stamps.

In this case, however, the artist Hirosada (active in Osaka 1819?-63) had used part of the margins to extend the smoke billowing over the heads of the actors.* This necessitated some snazzy scissoring by the album-maker, and a little tricky pasting where the smoke overlapped.

Such playful reframing of stock ukiyo-e portraiture offers a charming window into the mind of a long ago Osakan, an anonymous collector whom we also have to thank for preserving in his album the vibrant colors, gofun, nacre, and other deluxe aspects of over 50 deluxe chûban prints.

By the by, the de-margining custom offers today's collector at least two benefits.

  1. Savings: Many people value full and faded more than trimmed and fresh, making the latter a bargain.
  2. Preservation: The lack of a margin discourages any urge to frame and hang the print on a well-lit wall.

*Ichikawa Ebizo V (as Nippon Daemon, right) and Okawa Hachizô I (aka Kikugorô III, as the ascetic priest Nakasaina), performing in Sangoku Daiichi Nochi no Kusemono at the Kado Theater in 8/1848.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 47, Summer 2005. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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