Would You Like to Browse an Edo-Period Japanese Bookstore?

The brush to block revolution saw a flowering of Japanese popular culture that still intrigues and enchants

Performers, seen from behind, delight an audience in Katsushika Hokusai’s “Tōto shokei ichiran,” 1800. All images from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection, courtesy of the Sackler Gallery.

Celebrities, the hottest tech-gadgets and a dance craze that swept the globe: these were the top Google searches of 2012. According to Google Zeitgeist, we couldn’t get enough of Kate Middleton, the iPad3 or Gangnam Style. So are we just incredibly shallow or what? The internet gets blamed for a lot these days, a perceived lack of sophistication included. Serious-minded articles query whether the internet is even responsible for making us “dumb.”

But a survey of more than 100 Japanese woodblock-printed books from the Edo period at the Sackler Gallery reveals that our current obsession with what is beautiful and entertaining follows a long tradition.

The museum’s “Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” documents the “brush to block” revolution that allowed for a flowering of popular culture in the form of widely-available volumes. Where visual narrative had once been the domain of painted hanging scrolls circulated within an elite society, now various social classes could engage with printed media, whether it was poetry, illustration or fiction. Curator of Japanese art Ann Yonemura says, “It was part of the culture to be able to create and read images to tell a story.”

The vibrant works serve as an ode to a widespread visual literacy that could support both academic and instructional texts as well as books full of illustrations of famous courtesans and Kabuki actors and even a healthy pornography industry despite official censorship. Part art, part commercial product, the books bridge that divide between a so-called high and low culture that even today can feel impossible to reconcile: reality TV is rarely elevated above “guilty pleasure” and newspapers still insist they carry “all the news that’s fit to print,” and nothing more.

Yonemura says she wanted the exhibit to feel like browsing in a bookstore, wandering from the action-packed battle scenes to the tranquil nature images and maybe even sneaking a peek at the row of erotic images–many of which include an unexpected element of comedy–tucked away. Perusing the books reveals that the strikingly fresh colors of the illustrations are as vibrant as the subject matter. From epic battle scenes to delicate landscapes and famous beauties, the popular culture of Edo Japan is a gorgeous place to visit; one that might even offer contemporary culture a path from the critic’s wrath to redemption.

Bold outlines create intense movement on the page, which can’t even contain the figure in the upper right. Kawanabe Kyōsai, “Kyōsai gadan,”1887.

Illustrations often accompanied poetry and sometimes even competed with it when the artist demanded a little more room. Suzuki Harunobu, “Ehon seirō bijin awase, vol. 1,” 1770.

Edo Japan had strict travel restrictions for those not involved in commercial activity or religious pilgrimages, meaning travel scenes and landscapes often had to substitute for the actual trip. Kitao masayoshi, “Kyoto meisho Ehon Miyako no nishiki,” circa 1787.

Curator Ann Yonemura says the colors remained so vivid in many of the books because they were protected between closed covers, unlike single prints. Katsushika Hokusai, “Ehon Sumidagawa ryōgan ichiran, vol. 2,” circa 1805.

Hokusai’s incredibly popular volumes of illustrations also reached Western audiences, who admired his vivid depictions of action. Katsushika Hokusai, “Hokusai manga, vol. 4,” 1816.

Printed books also became a way to spread the latest fashions. Katsushika Hokusai, “Ehon kyoka Yama mata yama,” 1804.

Kabuki actors, while not high in social status, were popular icons, whose careers and lives were followed with great interest. Katsukawa Shunshō and Ippitsusai Bunchō, “Ehon butai ogi, vol. 3,” 1770.

Though woodblock printing had been used widely for Buddhist texts, its ability to reproduce more complicated artistic images was doubted initially. But the technology proved itself quickly. Hosoda Eishi, “Onna sanju-rokkasen,” 1801

Hokusai published 15 volumes of his sketches. Though some may have used them as rough instructions, many simply enjoyed the range of illustrations. Katsushika Hokusai, “Odori hitori geiko,” 1815.


“Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” is on view April 6 through August 11, 2013 at the Sackler.

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