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Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Utagawa Kuniyoshi "In the Ruined Palace at Soma"

November 08, 2021

Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Utagawa Kuniyoshi "In the Ruined Palace at Soma"

"Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e" is a series of articles where we feature one ukiyo-e artist and his work with background information about how the artist's prints were produced and insights from the perspective of a woodblock print studio.

"In the Ruined Palace at Soma" features an impressive giant skeleton that comes through torn bamboo blinds and reveals its face in the dark. This is a work by Utagawa Kuniyoshi in a triptych format called "sanmai-tsuzuki," which is made by horizontally arranging three normal-sized ("Oban" format) ukiyo-e prints.

↑The staff holding up the work is 160 cm tall.

The sanmai-tsuzuki was not made as one large work but was shown as a large work by making three prints separately and arranging them side by side. Why was it necessary to divide the composition into three parts? While paying attention to the materials and work processes of ukiyo-e, we will consider the reason why people at that time created the wide composition in three pieces.

I. Why was the work divided into three ukiyo-e prints?
    -- Considering the materials used

First, the two main materials used in ukiyo-e are woodblocks and Japanese washi paper.

During the Edo period, ukiyo-e were mass-produced, and 200 ukiyo-e prints were published at a time. After that, if it sold well, another 200 sheets were printed, and it is thought that reprints continued until the demand disappeared. For this reason, woodblocks were required to be durable and resistant to wear so that they could withstand mass production. Therefore, wild mountain cherry trees were selected as the woodblocks, which had the characteristics of being hard, even and finely grained, having a low shrinkage rate, and having excellent durability. The wood for woodblocks was cut out vertically from the tree. It is said that wild mountain cherry trees finally grow to a trunk with a diameter of 50 cm when they are 100 years old, and boards of a size that can be used as woodblocks were very valuable at that time.

↑Wood used in ukiyo-e is cut out vertically from the tree and called "itame."

↑Wood from a wild mountain cherry tree before it is carved.

<Japanese washi paper>
Handcrafted Japanese washi paper made from paper mulberry is used in ukiyo-e. After pre-treating the mulberry and boiling it to separate the fibers, it is mixed with water and strained with a tool called "sugeta." The fibers of mulberry are entwined and make very durable paper. This durability is ideal for ukiyo-e prints that are rubbed over and over again to print each color.

↑Iwano Ichibei, Living National Treasure of Japan, makes Japanese washi paper.

In the Edo period, not only the size of washi paper but also the method of making it differed depending on the purpose of use, and there were multiple standards for washi paper in ukiyo-e. Among them, the standard called "Obosho" was the mainstream at that time, and the Oban size, which was a half-cut of this Obosho size, was most commonly used for ukiyo-e, including Hokusai's famous "The Great Wave off Kanagawa."

↑The gray frame (49.3 cm x 68.2 cm) is the Obosho size, which was mainstream at the time.
"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" was made in "Oban," which is half the size.

Kuniyoshi's three-part work "In the Ruined Palace at Soma" is made from three sheets of this Oban size washi paper.

↑(Left) "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" / (Right) "In the Ruined Palace at Soma"

Now, let's take a look at the size of the sanmai-tsuzuki that was made by arranging three Oban ukiyo-e prints side by side. To produce the three-part work as one picture, the woodblock and Japanese washi paper must be about 37 cm x 75.5 cm, which is the approximate size of the finished work, or larger.

When it comes to wood that can be cut to make woodblocks of this size, the supply is limited and the price is very high, which is not worth the unit price of ukiyo-e.

↑The key blocks for "In the Ruined Palace at Soma."
A board of about 40 cm x 80 cm is required to make a single woodblock of this size.

<Japanese washi paper>
If the three-part work were to be made as one picture, the size (about 37 cm x 75.5 cm) would be larger than the largest size Japanese washi paper used for general ukiyo-e (about 49 cm x 68 cm), so it would have to be custom-made. To do so, it would be necessary to make new tools such as the sugeta. In terms of cost and efficiency, mass-producing such large sheets of paper is not worth the unit price of ukiyo-e, as with the above-mentioned woodblocks.

↑The white paper laid underneath is the Obosho size.
The three-part work would not fit on a single sheet.

II. Why was the work divided into three ukiyo-e prints?
     -- Considering the work processes of carvers/printers

Next, let's take a look at the work processes of carvers and printers.

In 2014, Adachi Woodcut Prints produced a woodblock print by contemporary artist Kusama Yayoi in a special size (about 30 cm x 90 cm). This is about the same size as when making this three-part work in one piece. Let's compare scenes from the work of the carvers and the printers when they made this print with scenes from when they are making the most common ukiyo-e format, the Oban size print.

<Comparison: Carving>
Both photographs show work on the same engraving table, but Ms. Kusama's work on the right side protrudes greatly from the engraving table, it takes time to move the woodblock, and work efficiency is poor.

Hiroshige "Morning View at Nihonbashi"
(about 22 cm x 35 cm)

Kusama Yayoi's work
(about 30 cm x 90 cm)

<Comparison: Printing>
Both photos show work on the same printing table, but in the case of Ms. Kusama's work on the right side, the paper is large and difficult to keep straight, so it takes more time to place the sheets of paper on the "kento" (a notch on the woodblock to align the paper) or to move the printed sheets to another place compared to the ukiyo-e on the left.

Hokusai "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"
(Oban: about 22 cm x 35 cm)

Kusama Yayoi's work
(about 30 cm x 90 cm)

III. Producing a large-format ukiyo-e by arranging three prints was the best and most efficient way!

Ukiyo-e maximizes work efficiency and profitability by producing the prints in a fixed standard size and makes it possible to sell it at an affordable price that many people can easily enjoy. Therefore, as we can see from both the material side and the work side that we have studied so far, creating the three-part work as one picture of the same size was not worth the unit price of ukiyo-e that people can easily enjoy. However, by devising a method in which three Oban size ukiyo-e prints are produced separately and arranged side by side to create a large picture, profitability and efficiency were achieved, enabling publishers to provide large-format ukiyo-e at a low price.

The sanmai-tsuzuki format can be seen in the works of Torii Kiyonaga and Kitagawa Utamaro who were active before Kuniyoshi, but most of the three-part works at that time were composed so that each print was complete in itself, and at the same time kept its continuity with the other prints. On the other hand, Kuniyoshi proposed a new way of showing sanmai-tsuzuki that fully utilized all three parts in one picture by creating works including many "musha-e" or ukiyo-e depicting heroic warriors.

Kitagawa Utamaro "Women Overnight Guests"
*All three prints have individual titles and are composed so that each print is complete in itself.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi "In the Ruined Palace at Soma"

Kuniyoshi's sanmai-tsuzuki, including "In the Ruined Palace at Soma" featured in this article, was the ultimate large-format print born from the persistent pursuit of profitability and efficiency.