Tokugawa-era Teabowl

Most of the prints that I have selected for inclusion in these Surimono Albums were created originally as 'art' objects; some were made to be given to friends, some were illustrations for books, and others were 'stand-alone' art. But by choosing only 'art' images, I am distorting the historical picture somewhat, because back in the 'old days' woodblock printing was not seen as an 'art' technique. It was simply 'printing', and was thought of in much the same way that we now think of commercial printing - the books, newspapers, pamphlets, packages and all the other assorted products of the modern printing industry - the main point was not the technique used, but the content. So it's time that I addressed this imbalance, and reproduced a print from that 'other side' of woodblock printing history; the image we see here is an example of woodblock printing being used simply as a vehicle to bring us a particular image.

These days we are so flooded with imagery - and beautiful full-colour realistic imagery - that we tend to forget that most of our ancestors lived in a world where 'illustrations' were rare. In a world without photography and the ability to print and distribute photographic images, there was simply no way to 'see' something at a distance; if you had no chance to see the real thing, you simply had to try and imagine what it looked like.

Perhaps - just for example - you had an interest in old tea ceremony objects; you were a connoisseur of tea bowls, and enjoyed seeing them whenever you had a chance. You had heard about the famous old bowls in the Tokugawa collection, but of course you could never actually see what they were like. In an era before the invention of photography, you were simply out of luck, and that was that. But as the country opened up after the Meiji Restoration, the hugely expanding thirst for knowledge meant that this situation became intolerable - a way had to be found to provide realistic illustrations.

So it was during that era that publishers found ways to respond to these demands by pushing the boundaries of what had previously been considered possible with the woodblock technique. The classical ukiyo-e prints had been made with flat, transparent colour, and with no attempt at 'modelling' of the objects depicted, but with wide use of the bokashi shading technique, combined with a great increase in the number of impressions taken from the blocks, much more realistic images could be produced.

In that short 'window of opportunity' - between the development of these new techniques and the arrival of the mechanical printing technologies which killed them off almost as soon as they had been born - a stunning range of illustrated prints and books were produced from woodblocks. The image you see here is taken from such a set of books, "Encyclopedia of the Arts of Japan", which illustrated a wide range of items from ancient times up to the end of the feudal era. This tea ceremony bowl is illustrated in two views, the general view you see here, and an illustration from the underside of the bowl which helps the viewers to see the out-of-round shape and the important maker's markings. It is all so beautifully done that I am sure it is 99% as good as seeing the real thing!

To my eyes now (and I hope to yours too) this sort of image is far preferable to a photographic reproduction - this has tone, depth, and a texture that flat kinds of printing just cannot capture; but I am sure that when photographic printing techniques arrived, these books were tossed aside in the rush to adopt the more 'modern' methods. And I suppose I can understand that - the photographs must indeed have looked more 'real' to their eyes at the time. I think though, that a lot was lost in the transition ...

Perhaps in future Surimono Albums I can bring you some more treasures from these old books: a lacquered calligraphy box, a pair of gorgeous door panels, a delicately engraved silver-fitted tea canister ... So much beauty, so little time!

October 2003

David