The Katsukawa painting is one of two pieces in the show donated in 1919 by Charles Lang Freer to what became the Freer Gallery of Art, the Sackler’s sister museum. Almost a century later, in 2007, the Sackler acquired Pulverer’s Japanese books, which the Cologne-based medical researcher began accumulating in 1969. The selection on display includes a fair amount of text, and one book that has no illustrations at all, but the emphasis is on picture books (“ehon” in Japanese). Although some date from the 1970s, most are from the Edo period (1603-1868).
Ehon are closely related to the individual prints (called “ukiyo-e”) made by Hokusai and such other masters as Kitagawa Utamaro, whose exquisite “Shell Book” is included here. Both books and prints were produced by the woodblock method, often using paper made from Asian mulberry trees. The long-fibered, low-acid material ages very well, as can be seen from this colorful collection. The books are in fine condition because they were usually stored closed, their pages protected from light.
The subjects of Edo-period books and prints often overlap. “Hand Held” is divided by the books’ themes, such as nature, adventure stories, Kabuki actors and beautiful courtesans. (There was also a market for erotica, and the Sackler is discreetly showing a few examples.) Travel was restricted during the period when most of these books were published, so views of unvisitable landmarks were prized.
Among Pulverer’s 20th-century acquisitions are modern retellings of traditional Japanese fables, as well as some Western ones. (There’s a volume of tales by Isoppu, a.k.a. Aesop.) But the earlier tomes are more striking, for both their delicate rendering and their bold compositions. Scenes move across pages, adapting the flowing quality of illustrated scrolls to the boxy format of bound books. The technique gives dynamism to even the most placid of scenes and anticipates the vigorous sense of movement in contemporary samurai and sci-fi manga. These are books that test the limits of rectangular space.
The introduction of woodblock books and prints marked the expansion of art and literature, and with them literacy, to Japan’s growing merchant class. Printed books, some of which used movable wood type to further speed production, were cheaper and thus more widely available than hand-copied manuscripts. History aside, though, Edo-period popular art is most notable for skill, ingenuity and playfulness.