Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hand-held: Gerhard Pulverer's Japanese Illustrated Books

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through August 11, 2013

Although the items in this exhibit are from the 1600s through the 1800s, it is actually a show about new technology.  In much the same way that the e-reader and the tablet and the smartphone are changing the way people read at the beginning of the 21st century, the hand-held book changed the way people read in the 1600s.  Just as we are looking for something more portable than a 500-page book and are finding it in the Kindle, the Japanese of 400+ years ago were looking for something easier to carry around than a scroll.

Unlike the rise of modern technology, which has widened a gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the hand-held book allowed more common people to read.  No longer did you have to be able to afford the scrolls produced painstakingly by hand; you could purchase a book made with wood blocks that were capable of being reproduced many times over.  The cost decreased and the distribution increased.  The closest experience in the West was the advancement of the printing press.

Aside from the historical importance of these items, there is the artistry to be enjoyed as well.  Beautiful drawings and lovely calligraphy abound, whether it's landscapes, animals, courtesans or humorous caricatures of everyday life.  There are even a few examples of erotic books, which are in a niche with plenty of warning about the potential unsuitability of the images.  Frankly,  I didn't find them terribly pornographic, but best to be on the safe side, I suppose.

Perhaps my favorite piece in the show is entitled "Women Airing Books and Clothes" by Katsukawa Shurisho.  Apparently, every autumn, the women of the household would air out the books, to prevent the dampness of summer from damaging them.  The scene depicts several women involved in this task, with one lying on the floor, engrossed in a book she has discovered in the course of her work.  I can sympathize, having been distracted from chores any number of times by reading.

My old favorite, Hokusai, is featured here as well.  He published a work he called "Manga," which translates to "Random Sketches".  They are drawings of any number of subjects, most of them comedic looks at ordinary people.  I prefer his paintings, and his Mount Fuji series, but even his little drawings are quite good.

Another piece that caught my eye was a small bookcase, made to fit perfectly a set of books.  It reminded me of a slipcover or a box for a set, although this was on a larger scale.  I imagine it helped to keep out the damp and the insects.

Verdict: If you like Asian art, or are interested in the history of books, this is a wonderful exhibit.

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