Dwarf Potted Trees in Paintings, Scrolls
and Woodblock Prints


Woodblock Prints

     The term ukiyo was originally a Buddhist reference to the present mundane world as opposed to the future life.  During the late sixteenth century, when the ambitious son of a farmer became Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruler of the entire country, the meaning of the word changed radically.  The world in which a man could gain wealth and power just by utilizing his talents as opposed to who his forebearers were came to be considered a heaven rather than the hell of previous ages.  In this way ukiyo came to mean "paradise" or "floating world." 
      In many ways the most remarkable by-product of the Tokugawa governmental system was the emergence of a kind of art made for and by the common people, especially the city dwellers, the artisans and traders.  The style originated in the old capital of Kyoto.  It argues for the homogeneity of the Japanese culture, one of the positive and permanent blessings of the shogunate, and it proves the penetration of the civilization through all the classes.  That the sons of firemen, superintendents of tenement houses, and embroiderers should be counted among the great artists of the world is not surprising today, but that these men of little education should have arisen in the late feudal age in Japan is only explicable if one admits their artistic sinsibility can be quite independent of other aspects of education.
     The term e means "picture."
     What became known as the Ukiyo-e school of art had appeared in the early sixteenth century and aimed at depicting the social life of the day, particularly of the lower classes.  This was done, at first, in illustrations for storybooks and, later, as independent prints.  All of the Ukiyo-e painters, starting about 1658, were engaged in the production of woodblock prints for this.
     Initially, a monochrome print from a single block was very common, and only occasionally was it decorated by hand-coloring.  At the beginning of the eighteenth century, lighter tones of vegetable pigments were favored, with crimson as the central color ( beni-e ).  In the 1720's the colors available were dominated by mineral pigments of vermillion ( tan ) from cinnabar, and green ( roku ) from copper oxide.  The pigments were prepared and perfected with the same zeal and care as in Renaissance Italy.  The hand-made Japanese mulberry-bark paper was usually of superior quality.
     After 1744 two to five blocks were utilized, with crimson still as the dominant color.  The polychromatic print -- in the genuine sense of the term -- appeared two decades later, and then it was given the flattering name of "brocade print" ( nishiki-e ).  The colors seeped deep into the paper, becoming a part of it.  When examined against the light, to a Westerner, they gave the illusion comparable only to the beauty of stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals. 
     The works of the Nagasaki print-makers chiefly depicted Dutch and Chinese topics as seen in and around the harbor.  Fauna imported by these foreigners is also to be seen.  Many of the Nagasaki-e show the influence of Dutch copper-plate engravings and late Ming paintings.  Like the Edo-e, the earlier southwestern Japanese pictures were printed on paper of poor quality and sold at ridiculously low prices to travellers, businessmen, scholars, artists and other visitors to the port as souvenirs.  The majority of the prints were made with strong-fibered mulberry bark paper imprinted from difficult-to-carve but long-lasting wild cherry wood blocks.
     These prints were not considered to be "fine art" during their time of production, and they were not thought of as the creation of a single artist working alone.  They were the joint product of a collaboration between several people -- the artist, engraver, printer, publisher, and consumer -- with the publisher in the center.  The publisher was the financier, decision-maker, and owner of the woodblocks and the copyrights, supervising the entire production process and marketing the many thousands of final prints.
     During the three centuries that these prints were produced, some eleven hundred publishers are known to have existed in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto.  (Perhaps half of these are known today by only a name and location.)  About two hundred of the overall publishers were members of the Picture Book and Print Publishers Guild (Jihon toiya), established in 1790 to control copyright infringements.  Over one hundred publishers existed in the 1790s; about 250 were active in the heyday of the 1840s and 1850s; there was a decline with the opening of Japan, but there were again over 180 active publishers in the 1880s, dropping to 40 in the 1900s.  The majority of print publishers and sellers were also active as book vendors.  Several operated large shops and offered even publications of rival publishers who in exchange sold their publications.  Many publishers simply continued to feed the market according to the current taste, without taking the risk of trying out new themes or styles.  Publishers in general tried to offer a wide range of products, aiming at consumers with a wide range of interests.  In a few cases, the period of activity of a publishing house goes well beyond one hundred years, and sometimes even over two hundred years, the usually small family businesses passed on from father to son, real or adopted.  New publishing businesses were more likely to get a head start by hiring renowned and established artists who demanded higher fees but were likely to be sold easier.  Sometimes a publisher took over the business of another publisher who had to cease his operation for whatever reason.  The overwhelming concentration of publishers was in the Nihonbashi district, considered the official center of Edo.
     Most of the prints were issued by a single publisher -- either as part of a series or as stand-alone designs.  Nishimuraya Yohachi, one of the most famous and active publishers, alone issued more than 140 print series between the 1770s and 1830s.  Some series, like the so-called "Processional Tōkaidō" (Gō-jōraku Tōkaidō) series from 1863 with over 160 different designs, were jointly issued by a number of publishers, in this case 25, and it remains unclear how such multi-publisher projects got started and organized.  The logistical effort must have been substantial, especially when several artists actually provided the designs. 1


Surimono Woodblock Prints

     Surimono (lit. "printed things") were privately commissioned sumptuous limited edition prints, smaller in size than standard woodblock prints.  They date from the 1740s and the art reached its height in the early nineteenth century. 
     The production of surimono, like all Japanese prints, was a cooperative effort involving the poet, artist, publisher, and engraver.  Groups of amateur poets or individuals would commission these prints for special occasions such as business openings, musical or stage performances, or season celebration -- especially New Year.  (Poetry groups included hundreds of members with affiliated groups in provincial towns throughout Japan.)  One or more thirty-one syllable kyoka (“mad poems,” 5-7-5-7-7) to be included in the composition were presented to the professional artist.  The text on surimono was important both for its meaning and its visual effect.  Each verse contained a word which indicated the season.  The print was based on or played off of the poetic subjects.
     The designers often pioneered subject matter that found its way into commercial prints later.  If surimono developed to satisfy a taste for subjects and treatment that were not available in commercial prints, it is no wonder that their popularity declined once their most important features had been adopted into commercial publications.  On the other hand, still life was one subject thoroughly explored by surimono designers but never adopted by commercial artists. 
     Printing techniques included metal powders, expensive pigments, and delicate materials such as mother-of-pearl (hence a heavier stock was needed to support these limited edition prints).  While commerical prints were issued in editions of many thousands, private orders for surimono were rarely even in the several hundreds. 
     The thick paper used for surimono was particularly suited for embossing, and this was used with great taste and imagination from the 1790s on.  More pigments were employed starting around the late 1810s and gold was used in the next decade, sometimes as background color. 2

A Guide to the Ukiyoe-Sites of the Internet
(not yet searched through for dwarf potted tree portrayals...)


1.     Hájek, Lubor Japanese Graphic Arts (London: Octopus Books Unlimited; 1976) pp. 27-30; Japan, The Official Guide (Tokyo: Board of Tourist Industry, Japanese Government Railways; 1933, 1941), pg. 167;

Mody, N.H.N. A Collection of Nagasaki Colour Prints and Paintings (Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.; 1969.  Original limited edition in 2 volumes, 1939), pg. xxvii;

Kikuchi, Sadao  A Treasury of Japanese Wood Block Prints, Ukiyo-e   (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.; Translation ©1969 by Tokyo International Publishers, Illustrations ©1963 Kawadeshobo, Tokyo.  Translated by Don Kenny), pp. 29, 32;

Paine, Robert Treat and Alexander Soper  The Art and Architecture of Japan (NY: Penguin Books; 1981, Third edition), pp. 245, 251.

Marks, Andreas  Japanese woodblock prints -- Artists, Publishers and Masterworks 1680-1900 (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; 2010), pp. 10, 13, 14, 21, 180, 181, 208 make up the final three and a half paragraphs of this first section above.

2.      Keyes, Roger S.  Japanese Woodblock Prints, A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College; 1984), pg. 46;

Keyes,  Roger S.  Surimono, Privately Published Japanese Prints in the Spencer Museum of Art (Tokyo/New York: Kodansha International Ltd.; 1984), pp. 14, 16-17, 19;

Mirviss, Joan B.  The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono (New York: Weatherhill, Inc. and Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum; 1995), pp. 12-17, 37; and the related "Surimono: Japanese Prints From the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives," a display of sixty surimono at the Phoenix Art Museum, October 1990-January 1991.

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