Some time ago, I was reading a general history of Japanese prints that was at times interesting as it contained both information that I was not familiar with, and viewpoints that had never occurred to me. And yet, I was sometimes also really appalled by the oversimplification of the phenomenon of Japanese prints. And so, I began to take notes that might come in handy when I, sometime somewhere in the future, would find the time to sit down and pen down the ideas that I have developed over time and what I have come to consider as important.
In general, I can say that I am more and more convinced that it is due time to
◊ Pay attention to the often close interrelation between Edo and the Kansai, that is the cities of Osaka and Kyoto;
◊ Consider single-prints as just one format that cannot be seen separate from both illustrated novels of various kinds, collections of kyōka poetry (kyōkabon), and picture books (ehon);
◊ Also take into consideration books of erotic content (enpon) that were, until recently, totally ignored in Japanese discussions of Edo-period printing, resulting in a highly corrupted art history (but also in Western literature on Japanese prints, there isn’t yet a rewritten Utamaro monograph, taking into account that close to one third of his picture books is of erotic content);
◊ Avoid terms such as ukiyoe, bijinga, yakushae, and quite some other Meiji/Taishō constructs as well;
◊ Otherwise, I will try to base my discussion of Edo-period printing culture as much as possible on factual information, that is facts and figures.
I have always considered Binyon & Sexton the best discussion of the theme. It is clearly arranged by the Japanese periods, nengō, which sometimes makes sense, but at times, it is also totally arbitrary. But I immediately admit that my own subdivision, into periods of ten years, is equally arbitrary. Anyway, I’ll try to make it work by treating the decades more loosely when a certain phenomenon or new developments make such necessary or desirable. Sometimes, I will also break up a discussion of, let’s say the 1760s, into two, three or four, or more parts.
Coming back to the Binyon & Sexton handbook, this is really a quite impressive accomplishment, considering that Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) was primarily a poet, working at various departments of the British Museum, publishing many works on English arts, as well as on Asian, Japanese, and Persian arts. His four-volume catalogue of the museum’s English drawings came out in the years 1898-1907. From 1913, he was appointed Keeper of the Sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings and only three years later he published the museum’s Catalogue of Japanese & Chinese Woodcuts (1916), which must have been at the base of the Binyon & Sexton handbook. Actually, this Japanese Colour Prints of 1923 came out in between his Court Painters of the Grand Moguls (1921), Drawings and Engravings of William Blake (1922), and Arthur: A Tragedy (1923). Of J.J. O’Brien Sexton we know only very little. We found him to be John Joseph O’Brien Sexton who lived 1866-1941. Otherwise, he is known from some series of articles in both the Studio and the Burlington Magazine in the 1910s.
Part One, Japanese Popular Print Culture – A Critical Review – 1670s, will be published this coming weekend.