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Posts Tagged ‘shunga’

Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

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Returning to the July symposium I wrote about some time ago, Dr. Soren Edgren of Princeton University, and of the Chinese Rare Books Project, also spoke about a rather remarkable collection which has recently come to light.

I know next to nothing about Ming Dynasty publishing, and less about Chinese erotica, but apparently a very long-lived Japanese collector by the name of Shibui Kiyoshi (1899-1992) had a collection of early 17th century (very late Ming dynasty) Chinese erotic books that has proven quite valuable for scholars, revealing brand-new insights into technical and stylistic aspects of Chinese publishing at that time.

When Shibui passed away in 1992, whether out of embarrassment at the erotic nature of the collection, or for some other reason, his family apparently simply shut the door to his study and left it closed, locked, sealed away as if it had never existed. They told scholars the collection was lost or destroyed. And so, for roughly 10 or 15 years, so far as the scholarly/museum world knew, the collection was indeed lost forever. Yet, finally, recently, the family began granting access to the collection again for the first time.

Shibui had worked closely with Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik, a collector himself, and author of the Judge Dee Mysteries. Van Gulik was stationed in Tokyo from 1935-1942, being evacuated after the outbreak of war between Japan and the Netherlands, but he returned after the war, and began writing books such as “Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period” in 1951, and “Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. Till 1644 A.D.” in 1961. Oh, and by the way, he also raised gibbons in Malaysia. Because, you know, why not?

In any case, Shibui published some works himself, in the 1940s, on the role of Chinese prints in the origins of ukiyo-e, works which were noticed and cited by the likes of van Gulik and Richard Lane. Shibui graduated from Keiô University in Tokyo, and taught there for a short time …. I’m afraid Dr. Edgren did not into too much more detail about Shibui’s biography.

… When his study was finally opened a few years ago, scholars discovered a small collection of roughly nine Ming books from around 1600 to the 1640s, containing polychrome prints unlike anything seen before in Chinese art. Very few Ming erotic woodcuts survive today, apparently, and *none* outside of Shibui’s collection are in color. Scholars determined that these color prints were made primarily in Anhui and Nanjing, and, in contrast to the multi-block method pioneered by Suzuki Harunobu (d. 1770) and used extensively in Japan from then on, these Ming prints were made by applying color ink to different sections of the same woodblock.

These Chinese books, however, date to roughly 150 years before Harunobu, and seem, from what I’m gathering, to feature some technical aspects that, by Japanese standards, were really rather ahead of their time. Beginning in the 1620s, the Chinese began to produce multi-colored texts, using multiple blocks, with a main text in black, and then, for example, blue for punctuation and red for commentary. These books employed a registration system similar to the kentô system Harunobu would employ in 1765-70, in order to make sure the multiple different blocks lined up correctly on the page. Though something of a breakthrough in the 1760s in Japan, these Chinese books made use of what’s really a rather simple system. The black ink “main” block would print a small corner marking on the edge of the area imprinted; the corner of the red ink block could then be lined up with that marking. Very simple.

Printing in two colors in China actually goes back as far as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but the first book to make use of more than two colors was the Chengshi Moyuan, printed in 1604. This volume contained reproductions of European artworks, as well as an essay by Matteo Ricci, the earliest extant example ever of printed, published romanization for Chinese.

A technique used extensively in these books, however, which was not used very much, if at all, in Japanese printing, however, was something called douban (餖版) or “assembled block” printing, in which not a single block, but multiple smaller blocks would be arranged into the printing table, and then printed all at once onto the page. One end of the paper would be secured to the end of the table, so that it could be flipped over on top of the blocks (the printing surface), but would not slide or shift. The blocks were then affixed to the table with some kind of gum, and the paper flipped over on top of them, to be printed using a technique not unlike the Japanese way – using a piece of wood or something else to press or rub the paper into the inked blocks, by hand.

An example of this technique can be seen in book copies of the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting, where the douban technique is employed in an attempt to reproduce the effect of the boneless technique of painting (i.e. areas of color without line). Since all these different blocks are being printed at once, the need for registration marks or registration techniques is essentially eliminated, but since you’re using a number of small blocks, and not a single full-page-size block, the ability to have registration marks is also largely eliminated; If and when you finish a given print run and move the blocks off the table, you’ve lost your registration and cannot easily produce the same image again. Or so I understand.

Dr. Edgren showed images from Shibui’s collection, and I noted based on my own experience the surprising similarities of style to early ukiyo-e. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to find any images to share with you here. One example he shared is a very short book of only a few pages, lacking a title but called Sheng Peng Mai (I think). Each page has poetry on one side and an image on the other, a very standard Chinese format. The images use multiblock registration techniques to add some yellows and blues, limited colors. Thin black lines and generalized (i.e. not individualized) faces resemble early ukiyo-e very closely in the simplicity and soft, curvy gracefulness of the forms, and in the specific appearance of the faces. Much more dense, complex treatment is given to clothing, and to objects in the background, such as furniture.

Another book from Shibui’s collection is one for which I did not catch a name or title. It comes in several volumes, and Shibui owned several copies, one of which was previously owned by Kimura Kenkadô (!!)(1736-1802). Handwritten notes in the margins may be by Kenkadô himself. The images in this book less closely resemble ukiyo-e, but are close enough to make the date, 1606, quite impressive considering the similarity to Japanese materials of nearly 100 years later.

Perhaps one of the most impressive and interesting books in Shibui’s collection is one called the Huei Ying Jing Zhen (sp?), which Craig Clunas – one of the most respected Chinese art historians active today – has described as no longer being extant. He didn’t know about Shibui’s copy; no one did. Shibui owned two copies of the polychrome edition of this book, remounted as handscrolls. They consist of 24 images, followed by poetry. What makes these books so important, or interesting, is their full-color four-color covers, unlike anything seen even in the (later) Qing period, when the Japanese were producing things with five to ten colors using tens of blocks in some cases. The Huei Ying Jing Zhen also makes use of colors in the text.

Incidentally, another interesting and important difference between Chinese erotica and the shunga materials we are more familiar with from Japan is that while shunga generally depicts a “pleasure quarters” context, i.e. a brothel, the Chinese images generally take place in a domestic setting, i.e. at home.

As with Japanese shunga, the significance of these books is not limited to their identity as erotica. I have as little interest in erotica as the next guy, preferring cleaner subjects. But, to push these aside and ignore them would be to lose out on extremely important examples of early Chinese multi-color printing. Dr. Edgren concluded his talk by discussing briefly that books like these were used by ukiyo-e artists as well, and may have had some influence on their style, though I of course would be extremely hesitant to place too much importance upon the Chinese role in defining the ukiyo-e style. I think these artists were definitively Japanese, drawing upon earlier Japanese modes and styles, and also innovating dramatically; I think that figures such as Hishikawa Moronobu, Okumura Masanobu, and Nishikawa Sukenobu were innovators and creative pioneers, not simply copying from Chinese materials, but really developing the start of something new. Still, it is quite interesting and fun to think of the interchange and trade in published materials going on at the time, and to think of these artists having copies of Ming erotica.

It is wonderful to hear about this collection being re-discovered and made accessible. I hope that more good scholarship can come from this, and from other collections that are only first coming to light today.

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