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