Sackler exhibition explores the pages of Japan’s illustrated books


“Onna sanju - rokkasen” by Hosoda Eishi (1756 - 1829). (Courtesy Gerhard Pulverer Collection; Freer and Sackler Gallery)
May 23, 2013

The artwork that greets visitors to “Hand Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” is neither a book nor from Pulverer’s collection. But the scroll painting at the beginning of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery exhibition could hardly be more apt. The 18th-century picture shows four women and a boy who are cleaning and airing a trove of books, and it’s by Katsukawa Shunsho, teacher of Japan’s best-known print and book-illustration artist, Katsushika Hokusai.

Hokusai is well represented in this show, with sketches of animals, sumo wrestlers and a joker who uses chopsticks to distort his face. These random, whimsical drawings were known in Japanese as “manga,” a term that has come to be applied to the country’s version of comic books. So “Hand Held” traces — partially, at least — the evolution from Chinese-inspired nature scenes to the likes of Astroboy.

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.

Like most exhibitions of books, “Hand Held” is a little frustrating. Most of the items are under glass, so visitors can’t leaf through them, or even choose which set of pages they see. In a way, the show serves as teaser for the unveiling of the complete Pulverer collection online, a project that’s well underway. One example of what’s to come is a multi-panel (and multi-season) Hokusai print that is available on the Sackler’s Web site. This vibrant, splendidly composed circa-1805 tour of the Sumida River through Edo (now Tokyo) flows past snowbanks and cherry blossoms, geishas and fishermen, shrines and brothels. It’s as cool as Astroboy, or any of his manga and anime successors.

Hand Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books On view through Aug. 11 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; 202-357-3200; www.asia.si.edu

Yuriko Yamaguchi, Michi Fujita and Iona Rozeal Brown

For contemporary reinterpretations of Japanese culture, “Seeds, Pods & Saplings: The Convergence of Three” brackets the art of Yuriko Yamaguchi and Iona Rozeal Brown. The former’s work suggests the serenity of a secluded forest shrine, while the latter pulses like Harajuku, Tokyo’s youth-fashion district. The show, at the Gallery at 200 I St. SE, also includes some landscape paintings by Michi Fujita, Yamaguchi’s late mother, which depict all four seasons in a single vista.

Among Brown’s original inspirations was Japan’s 1990s “ganguro” scene of young women who emulated the look of African Americans, even going so far as to dye their skin. She portrayed such overeager fashionistas, and their American models, in the style of ukiyo-e prints. The D.C. native continues to use geisha-gangsta mashups in her more recent work and has added some of the absurdly busty nymphs who appear in soft-porn manga. But her style has become looser, more painterly and less bound to her original concept. Gold drips down some of her mixed-media works, and a large piece on polyethylene sheeting employs light blue streaks for a rainy atmosphere. The result is less literal but more evocative than her earlier cross-cultural riffs.

Considerably quieter than Brown’s work, Yamaguchi’s hanging sculptures bring an almost rustic vibe to the office-lobby gallery. “Metamorphosis” is a wall piece comprising 16 items arranged in grid; some are found objects, while others are carved wood. Together they evoke the idea of “wabi,” the beauty of rough-edged, unfinished things.

The Osaka-born artist, a longtime area resident, isn’t overly solemn about her work. She is also showing a construction in which cones of paper, inscribed with prayers as if to be tied outside a Shinto shrine, are hung on wires to resemble blossoms. But the cones, rather than something exalted, turn out to be used coffee filters. Their stained contours exemplify the knack for finding beauty in the everyday.

Yuriko Yamaguchi, Michi Fujita and Iona Rozeal Brown: Seeds, Pods & Saplings: The Convergence of Three On view through June 30 at the Gallery at 200 I St. SE, 202-724-5613; dcarts.dc.gov/event/seeds-pods-and-saplings-convergence-three

Mark Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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