By KATHERINE L. BLOOD
Long appreciated and studied by Western artists, scholars and collectors, the Japanese art of Ukiyo-e (translated as "Pictures of the Floating or Sorrowful World") first captures the eye by its physical beauty and captivating subject matter—exquisite courtesans, stunning landscapes, the baroque world of the theater. A closer look yields complex layers of meaning, issuing partly from the dual function of Ukiyo-e art as accessible, democratic images by and for everyday people, and as the new, spirited progeny of a long and highly literate courtly tradition.
The Library of Congress exhibition and its companion catalog "The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams and Substance," mark the first substantial analysis and public viewing of Japanese woodblock prints and printed books from the collections of the Library of Congress. The exhibition and catalog were made possible by the generous support of Merrill Lynch. The United States-Japan Foundation funded the conservation of original artworks on display.
From Sept. 27 to Jan. 5, 2002, more than 100 artworks will be on view in the Library's Jefferson building, revealing the extraordinary breadth of Ukiyo-e art and literature and the depth of the Library's holdings in these areas. The selection of works focuses on Ukiyo-e from the 17th to 19th centuries, but also offers examples from other schools and traditions in Japanese art, and works that show artistic cross-fertilization between Japan and the West. Some examples of modern and contemporary Japanese prints are also exhibited.
The Library was fortunate to collaborate with three guest scholars who brought their expertise to the collection. Shojo Honda, senior reference librarian of the Japanese Section, donated his time before and after his retirement from the Library to identify and prepare a bibliography of the collection of Pre-Meiji books on art, with Sandy Kita, a specialist in Japanese prints and paintings from the University of Maryland. The bibliography is published for the first time in the exhibition catalog and will also be made available in both English and Japanese through the Japanese Section, Asian Division, Library of Congress at (202) 707-3766 or -5426.
Mr. Honda's research led Mr. Kita to further investigation into the prints and drawings. They were then joined by Japanese literature specialist Lawrence Marceau from the University of Maryland, and together they undertook the research and translations for the exhibition and catalog. Shojo Honda also contributed his beautiful calligraphy to the exhibition signage.
A richly illustrated exhibition catalog (published by Abrams in association with the Library of Congress (2001) ISBN 0810941694, $49.50) accompanies the show and includes essays on traditional and contemporary views on Ukiyo-e (Kita), Japanese literature and woodblock-printed books (Marceau), physical and conceptual aspects of Japanese books (James Douglas Farquhar from the University of Maryland) and artistic cross-fertilization between Japan and the West and the Library's collection (this writer).
The Art Form of Ukiyo-e
Scholars continue to debate the chronological boundaries of Ukiyo-e, but consensus opinion holds that it came of age and flourished during Japan's Edo Period—from 1615 to 1868. This corresponds with the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, a time of relative peace and limited international contacts. During this period, the imperial court retained its base in Kyoto, while the city of Edo (now Tokyo) became the shogunal seat of power. The social hierarchy of the day placed those with the most spending power, the merchants, at the lower end of the scale. It was the collaboration among the merchants, artists, publishers and townspeople of Edo that gave Ukiyo-e its unique voice. In turn, Ukiyo-e provided them with a means of attaining cultural status outside the sanctioned realms of shogunate, temple and court.
Although initially considered "low" art—by and for the nonelite classes—the artistic and technical caliber of Ukiyo-e is consistently fine, and "reading" the images demanded (and still demands) an extremely high level of visual, textual and cultural literacy. From its earliest days, Ukiyo-e images and texts frequently referred to themes, sometimes centuries-old, from Japanese classical and literary sources, history and art history. At the same time, the boundaries of Ukiyo-e continually expanded to reflect contemporary tastes, concerns and innovations over the course of more than two and a half centuries. The result was an art that was both populist—of and for the people, readily accessible, plentiful and affordable—and highly sophisticated.
Common Themes and Elements in Ukiyo-e Imagery
The "here and now" life of the pleasure and theater districts in Edo provided continuously fertile ground for Ukiyo-e artists whose woodblock prints of exquisite courtesans and resplendent kabuki actors were staple fare. Bijin-ga, or images of beauties, celebrated both real and idealized women (sometimes both at once with a contemporary figure representing a historical persona or an abstract concept), including courtesans, performers, artists, writers, fictional characters, historic figures and representative types. Celebrity often played a role in prints of beauties, and this impulse is particularly evident in Yakusha-e, or images of actors. In contrast to the softer style practiced in the Kyoto-Osaka area, kabuki actors from Edo were known for a bombastic style of kabuki called aragoto (rough stuff). Theatrical prints often focused on climactic scenes in the play and moments of epiphany for its actors.
Ukiyo-e images also ventured far afield of the pleasure and theater districts. They depicted beauty spots and famous places, natural and architectural features, temples, monuments and themes or products associated with specific regions. Natural beauty was also expressed through the depiction of birds, plants, shells and insects. The importance of travel in Edo society was driven partly by a mandatory rule requiring all daimyo (feudal lords with domains awarded by the shogun) to maintain residences in Edo and alternate their time between that city and their homes. Regular traffic to and from the city was also stimulated by the development of major thoroughfares such as the Tokaido Road, which ran along the coast between Edo and Kyoto. On a deeper level, landscape imagery was closely connected to classical Japanese art and poetry, and Ukiyo-e printmakers built upon this tradition, often alluding to the seasons, stories and poetry vis-à-vis certain features of the land and nature.
Text and poetry were essential components in many Ukiyo-e artworks. This is especially true of surimono, literally, "printed thing." Surimono were privately commissioned prints, made to commemorate special events and given to a select circle (usually literary) as mementos. They paired poetic texts with specific images, both of which were typically intended to carry the cachet of "insider knowledge" for a cultured and well-educated audience. Texts and images might contain layered meanings, literary references and indirect allusions to an event or celebration.
Ehon: Blockprinted Books, Painting Manuals and Albums
Words and images have long played a central role in Japanese cultural history. Before the rise of printing, elite patrons commissioned what are now considered to be great canonical works, such as the early 11th century Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), a massive romance extending over three generations, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to an imperial consort, and the Tale of Genji Scrolls (Genji monogatari emaki), a series of exquisite illustrations delicately combined with calligraphic selections from the Genji text.
By the 17th century, however, new printing technologies completely transformed the ways in which people communicated using words and images. First movable type, and later woodblock printing techniques, by which both text and illustrations were carved into blocks of wild cherry, provided the means by which large numbers of individuals could gain knowledge of all types without having to undergo the laborious and expensive process of hand copying that had previously been the norm.
One advantage of the block-printing process was that books could be illustrated using the same process as that which provided the text, and that books containing primarily illustrations, such as textbooks for would-be artists or the collected works of professional painters, could also reach a wider audience.
As a vehicle for Ukiyo-e, woodblock printing was particularly successful, allowing prints to be produced in quantity and sold at a relatively low cost. Making Ukiyo-e prints was a group project, involving a publisher (for commercial prints), an artist who drew the design in ink on paper, a carver who cut the design into the woodblock and a printer who inked the block and transferred the image to paper.
Ukiyo-e exploits the full potential of the woodblock medium. The interplay of wood grain and paper texture are often key elements in composition and design. Since the process involves the transfer of ink from the block to paper under pressure, woodblock prints often display three-dimensional qualities, and embossing is a common design device. Papers vary in texture and opacity, and paper surfaces (plain and printed) sometimes glitter with flecks of powdered metal or mica. Some images, especially early examples of Ukiyo-e, are spare and monochromatic. At the other end of the spectrum are lavishly colored images built up in multiple layers of color. Colors and textures are seen in a dazzling array of combinations, from organic hand-applied pigments to later aniline dyes and from metallic inks to highly polished lacquerlike passages.
Original colors, textures and surface dimensions must be carefully preserved through conservation, housing and limited exposure and handling. To meet the challenge of preparing exhibition objects for display, Director for Preservation Mark Roosa and Maria Nugent, Book and Paper Section head, rallied the talented in-house conservation staff. The team was led by conservators Linda Stiber Morenus and Jesse Munn, in collaboration with Rikki Condon (see story on page 204). Winterthur Museum conservator Betty Fiske, a specialist in the treatment of Japanese prints, also came on board part-time as a consultant and to assist with treatments. Beyond stabilizing and extending (in many cases, saving) the life of these objects, conservation work frequently deepened the scholarly understanding of the works on display.
The Library's Collection
The impact of Ukiyo-e reaches far beyond its original time (1615-1868), place (the Japanese city of Edo) and intent. That so many major museums and libraries in Europe and the United States have assembled substantial collections of Japanese Ukiyo-e is a testament to its influence and also reflects the shared histories of these countries. During the 19th century, when Japanese-influenced style irrevocably entered the lexicon of Western artistic expression, Western appreciation for Japanese graphic art and culture reached a crescendo. Simultaneously, and on a very different trajectory, exposure to the West began to have an increasing impact on Japanese artists and audiences. The results of these cultural exchanges are extensively chronicled in the Library's matchless holdings of graphic art. Particular strengths include Japanese Ukiyo-e of the 17th to 19th centuries, 19th century Yokohama-e (primarily images of Westerners in the port city of Yokohama) and Japanese-inspired artworks known by European and American artists from the mid-19th century forward as Japonisme (a term used to describe the taste for and artistic appropriation of Japanese style). The Library's collection also includes Japanese political prints from the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars and modern and contemporary Japanese prints.
The Library of Congress owes its extensive holdings of Ukiyo-e prints and printed books to a host of different collectors, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Howard Taft, A.J. Parsons, Leicester Harmsworth and Donald D. Walker. However, the most extensive collection of Ukiyo-e at the Library was assembled by one remarkable individual, Crosby Stuart Noyes (1825-1908). Noyes came to Washington, D.C., in 1847 with less than $2 in his pocket and rose up through the ranks as a young journalist. During the Civil War, Noyes was acquainted with Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edward Stanton. The Star was the first newspaper to publish Lincoln's inaugural address, and official announcements were often made through the paper during his administration. In 1867 Noyes purchased the paper along with several associates, and became its editor-in-chief. By 1908 the Star was hailed in the New York Tribune as "the most influential newspaper in Washington … which shapes more legislation than any other paper in the United States."
Over the course of his life, Noyes traveled widely and visited Japan several times. He assembled an extensive collection of Japanese art, which he gave to the Library in 1905. According to the 1906 Annual Report of the Library of Congress, the gift consisted of 1,304 works, including: "12 water-colors, 145 original drawings, 331 wood engravings, 97 lithographs, 658 illustrated books and 61 other items." The annual report's description of the gift, which included a detailed list of works as well as letters from Noyes and Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, was reprinted by the Government Printing Office, in a booklet titled The Noyes Collection of Japanese Prints, Drawings, Etc., Presented by Crosby Stuart Noyes, 1906.
Most of the major schools, genres and masters of Ukiyo-e are represented in Noyes's collection. Because he was purchasing Japanese prints at a time when such collecting was still in its infancy, he was able to acquire a large number of so-called "primitives" by early Ukiyo-e masters of the 17th and 18th century. Such prints were originally issued in limited numbers and are extremely rare today. Noyes also collected Japanese woodblock prints related to the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars.
In his letter accompanying the gift, Noyes interweaves his opinions of Japanese art with the words of contemporary Western writers on Japanese art, including Edward F. Strange, Sir Rutherford Alcock and Basil Hall Chamberlain. On the subject of Japanese artists, Noyes wrote:
"Their art, as well as character, is notable for its diversity and strong contrasts. In its different schools—academic, realistic and impressionist—it is by turns vigorous, graceful, grotesque, weird, decorative, refined, intense, dainty and poetic."
He ended the passage by writing: "Japanese art, as well as character, has been misunderstood and misrepresented."
Noyes's gift to the Library came just one month after the official close of the Russo-Japanese War, in which Japan effectively blocked Russia's expansionist policy in the Far East. Noyes alluded to the political climate of the times in this passage toward the end of his letter:
"What is to be the future of this remarkable people? This is the great problem now before the world. The pursuit of this inquiry will necessarily lead to a close study of the antecedents of the Japanese; their history, life, manners and customs, industries and arts, and it is believed that this collection will afford the inquirer a considerable amount of information."
Beyond the beauty, charm and artistry of its images, Noyes anticipated the research potential of his collection as a window into Japanese history and culture and as a source for both appreciation and understanding.
Today, the Library of Congress preserves one of the major collections of Japanese art and literature outside of Japan. The lion's share of its holdings are housed in the Asian Division (mostly bound works) and the Prints and Photographs Division (primarily unbound works on paper).
The unveiling of this little-known treasure trove represents many years of work by both in-house specialists and outside scholars, and the collaborative efforts of a large cast of staff throughout the Library. Interpretive Programs Officer Irene Chambers and Exhibition Director Kimberli Curry shepherded the exhibition from concept to gallery, in partnership with the Asian Division, Prints and Photographs Division, Conservation Division, freelance designer James Symons of Studio Five and co-curators Lawrence Marceau and this writer.
The show is divided into five sections: "Early Masters," "Major Genres," "Images and Literary Sources," "Realia/Reportage" and "Japan and the West." "Early Masters" (17th and 18th century) features many of the earliest and rarest examples of Ukiyo-e in the Library's collections, showing the technical progression from monochrome images to polychrome "brocade" color printing. "Major Genres" includes portraits of beautiful women, theatrical prints and landscapes. "Images and Literary Sources" explores the rich interrelationships between Ukiyo-e images and themes from Japanese history and literature. "Realia/Reportage" examines aspects of Ukiyo-e images that function as documents reporting on the contemporary world of their creators and consumers. "Japan and the West" examines artistic influence between Western and Japanese artists from the 19th century to the present day.
Ms. Blood is assistant curator for fine prints in the Prints and Photographs Division. The author thanks Lawrence E. Marceau for contributing the section in this article titled "Ehon: Blockprinted Books, Painting Manuals and Albums." She also thanks Publishing Director Ralph Eubanks and Editor Iris Newsom for all of their efforts in bringing the catalog to fruition, the guest scholars for sharing their knowledge of the collections and all of the dedicated Library staff who helped make this project possible.