As I mentioned a few days ago, I am working (interning) this summer with a collection of Japanese illustrated books, collected by Dr. Gerhard Pulverer, and now owned by the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian.
The collection includes roughly 2,000 books, most but not all woodblock-printed, dating from the 17th century to as late as the 1950s, if not later. I think the latest book I’ve come across so far was dated 1955; the earliest, c. early 17th century, such as some hand-painted by Hon’ami Kôetsu (1558-1637).
Today, I thought I’d share some highlights of the collection. These are just things I have come across that grabbed my eye; I don’t know the whole collection inside and out that I can definitively say what are the highlights of the whole collection – this is just out of what I have seen so far. Ideally, I might have liked to Tweet or blog about these as I saw them, one highlight a day, or so, but it’s too late for that. Also, ideally, I really wish that I could share pictures with you all, since text descriptions are wholly inadequate, and if anything serve only as a tantalizing temptation, spurring a desire to see the actual images. Well, it may be a few years before those images are available, but I hope to come back at that time and share more about these books, more in-depth, or at least with images. For now…
*A thin memorial booklet in memory of kabuki actor Arashi Rikan, published on the occasion of his death by his fan club. I am told this is the only known extant copy of the book, which is a really gorgeous work. Though only about ten pages in length, every page features lavish decorative elements such as gold, silver, or mica, embossing, and/or really good, bold colors, all on a much thicker paper than you’d see in most more commercial books.
Right: A memorial print of kabuki actor Nakamura Kanjaku (1834-1861) by Utagawa Yoshitaki. Not an object in the Freer/Sackler Pulverer Collection, but of a type with the Arashi Rikan memorial book this post focuses on.
The book reflects a number of distinguishing features of the Kamigata (Kansai, i.e. Kyoto-Osaka area) popular culture of the time, in contrast to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Firstly, kabuki fan clubs, especially fan clubs that organized their own publications, put on their own plays, composed poetry together, and often even enjoyed the company of the actors themselves at the club’s meetings, were much more common in Kamigata, and more prominent. By contrast, while I am sure there must have been fan clubs in Edo, the publishing of actor prints, and a wide variety of other activities associated with the theatre, were much more dominated by “professional” artists, publishing houses, and the theatres themselves. In short, it was a more commercial endeavor, in some ways, in Edo. Whereas this memorial booklet was put together by a fan club, in honor of the actor they adored so much, in Edo, I can only imagine memorial booklets, or prints, being put together by a big-name print designer, in concert with a big-name publisher, both of whom have had long and close relationships with the theatre that actor belonged to.
A second feature is the surimono quality of the book, in the high quality of the paper and printing techniques. Surimono (刷物) literally just means “printed thing,” but the term is used to refer specifically to a type of higher quality, limited print run print, often made on commission and/or for a specific patron. They were much more expensive, and were not made for general sale. Though full-color ukiyo-e printing, known as nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”) got its start with a commission from a small exclusive circle, who hired Suzuki Harunobu (d. 1770) to produce calendar prints for them, it was in Kamigata where surimono really took off. They were produced by publishers sometimes purely as gifts, other times on commission, but often in connection with an exclusive poetry circle or kabuki fan club, groups of actors, artists, merchants, samurai (sometimes), and other cultured, urban, high-class types who sought surimono either as gifts for one another, gifts for a guest, or, in this case, as something produced for the members of a fan club (and only for members of that fan club).
While I think the term surimono is generally used to refer to single-sheet prints, this book is, in essence, ten or so surimono stuck together as a book. Each page is on thick, stiff, expensive paper, with various patterns embossed into it (such as, perhaps, the pattern on the actor’s kimono in a given image), gold and silver foil, and expensive full-color pigments that are laid on thick.
This is the first and only such actor memorial book I’ve seen, and it’s really an incredible thing. Especially considering how, the vagaries of time and chance being what they are, we could easily have ended up instead with a book about a much lesser-name actor, and yet instead we have Arashi Rikan, easily one of the most prominent actors of his day.
Learn more about memorial portraits, or shini-e here.