From the Met: a superb collection of Japanese books




In the era of Kindle, we regularly retreat for refreshment to the book-as-art-object, and no destination is better suited to this shift-in-focus than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Last fall, the museum acquired about 400 volumes spanning the 17th to 19th century, from a private collection – but unless you have mastered the Japanese from a few centuries ago, you won’t be able to read them. No problem!  You can simply look at them. That’s the whole idea of book-as-art-object. We’ll give you a head start.

japanese3Although the museum began collecting of fine art Japanese books began 60 years ago, the newest cache is choice: it includes masterpieces of woodblock printing, many nearly impossible to find in such fine condition today. Here are a few (photos by Karin L. Willis): Above, Santō Kyōden (1761–1816), New Mirror Comparing the Handwriting of the Courtesans of the Yoshiwara (1784).  Below, an illustration of seashell lovers from Kitagawa Utamaro‘s Gifts of the Ebb Tide (The shell book), probably 1789; the illustration at right is from the same volume.  Go to the the museum website here to see dozens more images. (Check out Katsushika Hokusai‘s One hundred views of Mount Fuji, 1834; 1835; ca. 1849, too.)

According to Asian Art curator John Carpenter, “Artists represented in the collection include Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige, who are best known today for their woodblock prints, but who also excelled at illustrations for deluxe poetry anthologies and popular literature. In one fell swoop, the Met now has a superb collection of Japanese books to complement its excellent holdings in paintings and prints of the Edo period (1615–1868).”



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