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Rare Book School Preliminary Reading List

Japanese Printmaking, 1615-1868

Sandy Kita


Preliminary Advices

There is much more written on Japanese woodblock prints in the Japanese language than in English, and there is a presumption among American scholars of Japanese woodblock prints that the most important and authoritative works are written in Japanese, not English. Whether, in fact, this is so seems to me debatable; but having said that, I must also admit that there is no one single book or set of books on Japanese woodblock prints which all scholars of this art form (a notorious critical lot anyway) would agree is acceptable.

Thus in compiling these recommended readings, I have focused on works which provide good background materials for my particular course and which are readable; but these works should in no way be considered the last word on the subject, and they will offer decidedly different approaches and information from that covered in the course. Those who are already familiar with the arts of Japan or who have taken courses on them may find the discussion in Part 1 unnecessary. They are encouraged to go straight on to Part 2.

Part 1: General Introductory Materials

It is important to have some sense of the development of Japanese art as a whole to understand c17-c19. Japanese woodblock prints or Ukiyo-e. That is especially so since my course concentrates on the cutting edge of scholarship on Ukiyo-e, and much of that has to do with how this art developed out of Yamato-e, the 12th-century tradition of native Japanese arts first codified in the 17th century against the standard of contrast provided by the arts imported into Japan from China in the 14-15th centuries. A very short, very readable, if old, book on the art of Japan is Langdon Warner's The Enduring Art of Japan (hardbound: Harvard, 1952, rep 1958; pb Grove Press, 1952, 1958, &c.). This work can be read in one sitting, and I would suggest starting with it. It also provides an excellent insight into how Western scholars saw the art of Japan, an issue in the course as well.

In contrast to Warner, the Japanese viewpoint on their arts is well represented by Akiyama Terukazu's (last name first in Japanese, so Terukazu is the first name and Akiyama the last) Japanese Painting (Skira [distributed by World Publishing Co., Cleveland], 1961, rep 1972, pb rep Rizzoli 1977). I suggest browsing through the first 140 pages of Akiyama's book and then reading pp. 141-181 on the Momoyama and Edo periods more carefully since they give a general survey of the materials covered in the course.

That done, you are ready for a specialized study of Ukiyo-e. The best I know is C. H. Mitchell's adaption of Narazaki Muneshige's The Japanese Print: Its Evolution and Essence (Kodansha International, 1966). Mitchell was an important collector and Narazaki is one of the most important scholars of prints in Japan. Much of my course is based on Narazaki's ideas.

It is useful to have at hand Richard Lane's excellent Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print (various publishers, 1978) when reading Narazaki. The back part of Lane's book contains an excellent dictionary of terms, artist's names, print series, etc. It is a wonderful reference work. The first 200 pages of Lane's book also provide a useful survey of the development of Ukiyo-e, which can substitute for Narazaki's discussion.

Lane's book like, all the others mentioned above, should be easily available. If not, any general work on Ukiyo-e in English will do, since the course uses these works mainly as a springboard for discussion, treating them as a straw tiger against which I will tryst as I introduce the new views on Ukiyo-e.

Please also read Herman Oom's essay on "Forms and Norms in Edo Arts and Society" in Robert T. Singer's catalogue Edo: Art in Japan, 1615-1868 (National Gallery, Washington, 1998).

Part 2: More Specialized Reading

The course examines recent advances in the understanding of Ukiyo-e and shows how they have changed our vision of this art. Ukiyo-e was once seen as an isolated phenomenon, the art of the brothel district of the city of Edo or Yoshiwara. The Yoshiwara, in turn, was viewed as an unusual place, the one place where people could be free. It is thought that the the Yoshiwara was made free so that it could be a safety valve where the pressures that built up in Japanese society under the Tokugawa Shogunate (warlord government) could be released. There was need for such a safety valve because the repressive Shogunate had unfairly placed the merchant class, the richest segment of society, on the bottom of the social order. This view of Ukiyo-e and the culture which produced it can be found in many old books on the subject, the most readable of which is James A. Michener's Japanese Woodblock Prints From Early Masters to the Modern (Tuttle Books, Rutland VT, 1959) though any of the works on Ukiyo-e mentioned in Part 1 will do.

Modern Japanese views of Ukiyo-e are based on understanding that Ukiyo-e is not an isolated phenomenon, that it is not simply the result of the unusual socio-economic situation that existed in the Edo period whereby the rich formed the bottom of the social ladder, but is rather the culmination of movements in art that trace back to the 14th century and which came from a general development of commoner culture. In particular, Ukiyo-e studies now stress the connection between the culture of the common people of the city of Edo (or chonin) and that of the inhabitants of the city states of Kyoto, Osaka and Sakai (choshu, also pronounced machishu), especially the cultural elite of those places, an egalitarian mix of aristocrats and rich merchants of the commoner class. This connection between machishu and chonin, Kyoto culture and Edo will underlie the discussion of Ukiyo-e in our class.

That being so, it is useful to have some familiarity with the chonin and the machishu and their respective cultures. The former is well explained in Lane, Narazaki and others, so you will have no difficulty learning about it. The latter is harder to learn about because scholars are only just now exploring it. As a result, only highly specialized studies exist, but the broadest and most accessible of these is the Introduction to John Whitney Hall's Japan in the Muromachi Age (Univ. of California Press, 1977). I suggest reading that Introduction and looking briefly at the other essays in the book. Hiroshi Mizuo's Edo Painting: Sotatsu and Korin [Vol. 18, The Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art] (Heibonsha and Weatherhill, 1972) is also very useful, since it talks about two machishu artists that I will also discuss.

My own thoughts on Ukiyo-e are spelled out in my book on Iwasa Matabei, the so-called Founder of Ukiyo-e: The Last Tosa: Iwasa Katsumochi Matabei, Bridge to Ukiyo-e (University of Hawaii Press, 1999). The catalog that I wrote for the Carnegie Museum of Art is also useful: A Hidden Treasure: Japanese Prints in the James Austin Collections (Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, 1995). Also useful is my readily available catalog for the Library of Congress: Floating World: Shadows, dreams, and Substance (Harry N. Abrams, New York: 2000).

More specific bibliography will be discussed in class.

Unfortunately, the books mentioned above are all out of print, and you may have to consult institutional copies. Try getting them on interlibrary loan via your local academic or public libraries; or consult BookFinder.com, where there are many used copies of the books by Langdon Warner, Akiyama Terukazu [search under both names!], and Richard Lane, and a few copies of some of the other titles, as well.