Japanese colour woodcuts

Author Utagawa Kunisada
Title Japanese woodcuts
School Japan
Technique Colour woodcuts
Workshop Paper Сonservation

In 2012, several Japanese coloured prints from the Oriental art collection of the museum were treated in the workshop.  

The items from this group were transferred to the museum at different times from different collections. Thus, 19 fragments of Sugoroku game (6,7,8,9,10) came to the museum from the collection of N.Galkin in 1931, and Kunisada’s Walk and At Hashimoto Restaurant were obtained from the State Archive of Literature and Arts in 1957.

The prints belong to the Ukiyo-e genre from Edo period. The main theme of Ukiyo-e is everyday life of townspeople, their work days and holidays: beautiful courtesans (bijin-ga), sumo wrestlers, Kabuki actors (yakusha-e), erotic scenes (shunga), landscapes (fukei-ga) and images of flowers and birds (kachō-ga).

Many Japanese prints in the museum require conservation to be exhibited later and properly stored. In those cases, the conservation treatments call for the use of the traditional Japanese materials: Japanese paper, adhesives, and tools.

Stages of conservation treatments

1.Conservation of Utagawa Kunisada’s (1786-1864) Walk (1) and At The Hashimoto Restaurant (3).

Japanese prints were made on different types of hand-made paper to achieve greater expressiveness. A print worker had to consider the hygroscopicity of the paper (how well the dyes are absorbed) and its texture, which helped to translate the artistic intention of the author. The composition of the paper included vegetable fibre and sizing. Traditional Japanese paper (wasi) is thin, long-fibred, lightly sized, working with it requires a very delicate approach, as the slightest physical impact causes damage to the surface (exfoliation of the fibres). Therefore, mechanical cleaning is only possible with a scalpel and a soft brush, and only in areas where the contaminants don not penetrate the paper deeply.

Japanese dyes used for such prints are a mixture of vegetable and mineral pigments, water and a small amount of animal glue, and they are not always water resistant. Therefore, the paint layer and museum stamps made with ink had to be tested for that. The test showed that the printing paints were water resistant, but not the stamp ink. To avoid the penetration of the ink further into the paper and staining the front side of the print, the stamps were weakened with a water-alcohol solution on the filter paper.

The paper was washed on a special mesh in the cuvettes with distilled water to remove the yellowness. The stickers and traces of glue were removed from the back side.

A local chemical treatment was used to remove the grease and brown stains. Then, the prints were washed in water until iodine-starch paper test gave neutral results.

To mend the breaks and consolidate the creases, as well as to fill the small losses, the fitting in colour and thickness traditional Japanese wasi paper and glue made of wheat starch were used. Larger losses, which would be difficult to retouch, were filled with tinted paper pulp.

The next stage was drying the paper. The prints were dried in the press for three weeks. After that they were retouched with watercolours (5). The prints were placed in passe-partouts made of acid-free cardboard and returned to the depository (2, 4).

2. Conservation of Utagawa Kunisada’s prints for a Sugoroku game (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

Sugoroku (Japanese: "paired sixes") is a board game played with dice and tokens that move across the spaces on the board. In this case, the spaces took form of a series of portraits of famous Kabuki Theater actors.

At one point, it used to be a whole piece of paper, which was later cut into 20 fragments. Only 19 of them are preserved in the museum.

At first, all the museum stamps with the inventory numbers were weakened, the surface of each fragment was cleared of the stains and stickers. The paper was washed to eliminate the yellowness. Then, just like in the previous case, local chemical treatments followed.

The small tears were mended with Japanese paper, their soiled edges, tears and small losses were filled with paper pulp on a light table.

The goal was to combine the fragments, according to the original plan of the author, into a single sheet. Parts of the print were glued together, and the missing fragments were filled with Japanese paper, tinted with watercolours in advance. Then the print was backed with a thin sheet of Japanese paper, which allowed to recreate the original appearance of the print without changing its quality.

Japanese paper is hygroscopic and stretches when wet. To avoid uneven stretching during the drying process, before backing the paper, all fragments were slightly moistened with a poultice made of damp cloth, Horetex and film. To straighten the paper base, the sheet was placed between the layers of cloth in the press. The drying process took about three weeks.

After the pressing, the paper was retouched in places of loss, abrasions and creases with watercolours (11, 12, 13, 14). Then, the prints were placed in passe-partouts made of pH-neutral cardboard for exhibiting and storage.