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Exploring the art of rare illustrated Japanese books

Workshop organized by the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture offers insights to scholars, curators and collectors

Japanese artwork, Keisai Eisen
Konotegashiwa (“A Two-Sided Leaf,” printed in Edo, 1836) by Keisai Eisen

A 19th-century Japanese printer lays a sheet of prepared paper finished side up on an un-inked wooden block into which an intricate pattern has been cut in relief.

He uses a baren — a composite “pad” — to rub the front of the paper, burnishing the raised portions of the block while leaving the remainder of the sheet matte. Known as tsuyadashi, this technique was often used to decorate book covers.

But, as those attending the recent USC workshop “Exploring Early Modern Japanese Books” learned, before bringing the baren to bear on the paper, the printer would first rub it against his hair. This is because men in 19th-century Japan dressed their hair with magnolia oil, said Ellis Tinios, honorary lecturer in history at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and an expert in Japanese woodblock printed books.

Rubbing the baren against their hair was a simple way for a Japanese printer of the period to transfer just the right amount of magnolia oil onto a composite pad, allowing it to glide smoothly over the paper and producing the desired effect.

This was just one of many insights into the art of early modern Japanese woodblock printed books provided by Tinios, who led the workshop hosted by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.

Rare copies

Held on Feb. 13 and 14 in the Doheny Memorial Library’s East Asian Seminar Room, the event brought together scholars, curators and collectors to explore outstanding and rare examples of Japanese book art.

Participants had an opportunity to work with 25 books, ranging in date from the early 17th century to 1910. Some of the books were multi-volume while 17 were extremely rare copies of books owned by an anonymous private collector.

You need to approach these books as both literature and art.

Satoko Shimazaki

“You need to approach these books as both literature and art, and at the same time engage with their materiality as printed objects in order to understand the extraordinarily dynamic printing culture of early modern Japan,” said Satoko Shimazaki, assistant professor of East Asian languages and cultures at USC Dornsife.

“It’s very difficult to get this kind of hands-on training in the United States,” she said. “In the workshop, we had a rare opportunity to see some of the most pristine, beautifully printed copies in the world of important books by some of the greatest Japanese artists of all time, including Hokusai.”

A remarkable achievement

Early modern Japanese printed books routinely fused text and image, and most major artists of the period designed book illustrations. Indeed, leading artists created designs exclusively for reproduction in book form and many enhanced their reputations through their publications.

These woodblock-printed illustrated books represent a remarkable achievement in terms of their high production values, diversity of subject matter and aesthetic standards, Tinios noted. No comparable sustained tradition of commercially produced, artistically significant books existed in China or the West, he added.

At the workshop, Tinios, who is also a member of the faculty of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, discussed some of the factors that have inhibited wider recognition of the significance of these books. He also highlighted their material qualities and reflected on the impact of production methods on their cost, format and design.

“Dr. Tinios is one of the world’s great authorities on Japanese prints and books,” Shimazaki said. “He showed us how different prints look depending on how early they are printed, how people could pirate or modify an image printed from woodblocks and how publishers marketed the books. The workshop opened our eyes to new ways of understanding early modern books and print history.”

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Exploring the art of rare illustrated Japanese books

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