Well, as I don’t think I’ve mentioned at all, I am in DC this summer, interning at the Freer/Sackler Galleries (aka the National Asian Art Museum, and part of the Smithsonian). As of today, I am in my fifth week at the Freer. (Wow, has it been that long already?)
I have been hesitant to post anything since I really don’t know what is and is not cool to share, and wanted to err on the side of caution. Museum work is of course not a matter of national security, but even so, museums’ reputations are fragile, and while the actual art objects themselves may be public domain on account of their age, museums, just like any other institution or organization, like to have control over their own publicity, public image, publications, etc.
But, I have checked with the curator, and there are various aspects that I can freely share.
The museum recently (a few years back) obtained a collection of over 2000 Edo period woodblock-printed books (along with some from Meiji and later). It’s an amazing collection, including some books that seem, as far as “we” know, to be the only extant copies, and ranging from popular literature to books of poetry to books related to kabuki.
We interns are here to take part in something a great many libraries and museums are focusing on these days – digitalization (digitization?) of the collection. So, basically, we’re photographing every page of every book, one by one, in order to make them more available to researchers and the general public, through a publicly-accessible online database which will eventually go up. We’ve got a great system and equipment, devised by Akama Ryô-sensei of Ritsumeikan, who is essentially leading the vanguard in Digital Humanities in Japan, and who gave a talk at our Kabuki Symposium at the University of Hawaii back in November. We received an intense two-day tutorial from Akama-sensei our first two days, and have Dr. Matsuba Ryoko, one of his leading proteges or disciples, as it were, working with us all summer overseeing the process and helping guide us through all our questions and difficulties. Matsuba-san specializes in kabuki and kabuki prints, so you know she’s my kind of person. She also presented at the Kabuki Symposium, and is easily one of my favorite up-and-coming scholars, in the sense that I am very interested in her research, impressed by her work, and eagerly looking forward to her future publications and presentations. I am very excited to be working with her and developing good personal & professional ties, networking, with her this summer.
Right: A complete set of seventy-five volumes of an 1830s-40s illustrated version of the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
The project may sound quite tedious, doing nothing but turning pages and clicking the shutter over and over and over again all day. And, yes, it is kind of exhausting, if only because of the focus it takes, and the way the room is lit (mostly dark, the only lights being really bright ones pointing directly at the books). But, actually, the books themselves are really fun and interesting, and I’m beginning to notice and appreciate all kinds of things I might not have ever noticed or appreciated before. Ukiyo-e, and especially the monochrome illustrations in books, can start to look quite monotonous after you look at too many of them. But, looking at these books, there are so many wonderful little touches that you start to enjoy. Things that seem innovative and interesting, even if they’re not really. Elements of the picture extending beyond the frame (I saw today a picture of a decapitated head flying out of the frame, the body spurting a fountain of blood), lettering in gold ink, slight touches of color on just one element of a picture, the use of black to indicate night or shadow in just one section, a great variety of calligraphic or other writing styles, including characters in white described in black outline, or characters meant to look like they were carved in stone… A range of techniques as inventive as any you’ll see in American comicbooks, or sometimes even more intriguing and exciting – after all, any standard narrative of the history of comicbook art in Marvel/DC comics will tell you that it wasn’t until the 1980s that certain techniques began to be used, such as breaking out from square panels, the use of splash pages, etc. And while few if any Edo period books are really anything resembling panel-based sequential pictorial storytelling (i.e. “comicbooks”), they do display many of these techniques, including especially the beautiful and dramatic use of splash pages.
I’ve also started to learn a bit about how prints and books are made, techniques, what they’re called, and perhaps most importantly, how to recognize them. Close-looking has never really been one of my strong suits, but in deciding how to best photograph a volume (or, rather, a particular page), we have had to keep our eyes out for silver and gold foil, mica, and other shiny or sparkly treatments; karazuri and other embossing techniques; and the like. Telling the difference between an “original” print and a later reproduction, or between a print and painting, is an important skill of the curator, art historian, or connoisseur, and we’re starting to pick up those skills doing this.
Right: Various sizes of chitsu (帙), a cloth-covered stiff box for Japanese books, secured with small “teeth” of bone or ivory, or more commonly today, plastic.
There are a great many things in this collection to be excited about, one of which happens to be a complete set of the Sangokushi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 三国志) in 75 illustrated volumes, published in the 1830s-40s. While nearly all of the books in the collection are either in traditional Japanese-style boxes known as chitsu, or in more modern/Western wrappers of acid-free board, these 75 volumes are stored in their own wooden box, labeled in Japanese calligraphy 「三国志全部 七拾五冊入」 (“Complete Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 75 volumes”). I don’t know the age or provenance of the box, but whether original (i.e. 150 years old) or not, it certainly seems purely Japanese, and “authentic.” (Meaning, I don’t presume to know anything in real detail about how Japanese traditionally stored books in the Edo period, but certainly nothing about this arrangement screams Western or modern. Nothing stands out as incongruous.)
It will be a year at least, probably 2-3, before these books are available online, but the museum’s current plan is to create an online catalog, publicly available, in which every page of every one of the 2000 or so books is available. I hope in the coming weeks to post more about individual books I come across, and other thoughts related to the project, but I especially look forward to being able to share these images with you.
All images in this post, with the exception of the depiction of the chitsu, are my own photos, taken myself. I apologize for the poor quality of the images of the books & wooden box, taken with my iPhone.