By LINDA STIBER MORENUS and JESSE MUNN
The Japanese art of woodblock printing is celebrated in the exhibition "The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams and Substance." The works in the exhibition include individual prints, illustrated books and original drawings, each presenting unique conservation challenges.
The woodblock prints in this exhibition from the Prints and Photographs Division were mounted on poor quality acidic boards. Over time, the boards had deteriorated badly and today are very brittle and chemically deleterious to the prints adhered to them. The adhesive used to attach the prints to the boards is problematic as well, with its amber color that stains the prints and also imparts chemical instability.
With these concerns in mind, the conservation challenge was to remove the artwork from the boards, while preserving every nuance of color and the multilayered printing effects, which are the hallmark of Japanese woodblock printing. First, a pilot project was undertaken to test several conservation approaches and to assess the time and effort that would be required to treat all of the prints scheduled for exhibition.
Based on the pilot project, a course of action to save the prints was set. Removal from their mounting required that the majority of the acidic board be delaminated with a spatula or scalpel, while the final layers were removed with controlled applications of moisture using damp blotter or Gore-tex fabric. The advantage of Gore-tex was that water could be introduced into the prints as a vapor, avoiding wetting of the paper and media.
Hand-applied colorants were treated for flaking by applying a chemically inert adhesive beneath the flakes with a fine brush, while working under a microscope. Some prints could be cleansed with water to remove stains, using conservation techniques that minimize dampness and exposure time. Holes in prints were filled with inserts of Japanese paper similar to the original, attached with wheat starch paste, an adhesive traditional to Japanese artworks. Compensation of losses in wood block designs was made using watercolors, pastels or dry pigment.
After mount removal, some of the prints were flattened, which required placing them on a drying screen, called a karibari. A second method of drying involves sandwiching a dampened print between two larger sheets of dampened Japanese paper. The "sandwich" then is placed between even larger pieces of blotter and weighted under sheet of Plexiglas.
Removing the acidic mounting boards from the prints has not only ensured their preservation while improving their aesthetic value, but also revealed aspects of their material character. The back of each print is now available for inspection.
The rare books selected for this exhibition from the Asian Division's collection of illustrated block printed books include rare copies, unique album collections, exquisite printings of famous woodblock artists and a selection of hand-drawn sketchbooks. Conservators prepared 37 of these books for display.
The formats of the Japanese books on view are mainly in two styles. One is the orihon, which is primarily a zig-zag, or accordion, format. The other main style is the fukuro-toji, which is composed of folios printed on one side and then folded in half from top to bottom of the page and sewn with silk thread along the cut edges.
The majority of the fukuro-toji style books are printed on thin, silky, translucent, long-fiber Japanese handmade paper. The more popular the book, the more the pages would have been handled, often leaving significant amounts of surface dirt and loss of fiber along the foredge folds. To stabilize these volumes for exhibition, conservators carefully removed as much surface dirt as possible and mended each foredge fold with a thin, handmade Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste, as is typical of conservation work done in Japan. The almost invisible mends reinforce the pages and support continued reader enjoyment. Original, worn covers were mended and the books resewn when necessary.
Many of the orihon, or accordion, style books posed another problem. These 19th and 20th century books were often printed on short-fiber paper that is vulnerable to breaking. Each fold was reinforced with a strip of handmade Japanese paper tinted to blend with the color of the book's pages.
One conservation treatment required that conservators reinforce and repair the gold embroidered silk book covers by employing some of the methods used in Japanese scroll mounting. The ragged silk covers were removed from the cover boards, lined with Japanese handmade paper, in-filled with tinted silk and rewrapped around the cover boards.
Conserving and preparing these important prints and books for exhibition was a collaborative effort that involved virtually every conservator in the Conservation Division and was supported by the United States-Japan Foundation.
"The unique character of these exquisite materials allowed our conservation group to branch out and apply new conservation solutions that will assure these treasures are available for future generations," said Mark Roosa, director for Preservation.
Ms. Stiber Morenus is a senior paper conservator and Ms. Munn is a senior rare book conservator in the Conservation Division.