Digitizing Japanese Illustrated Books

I am lucky enough to be working with Watson Library and the Department of Asian Art to digitize the Japanese Illustrated Books collection.  These are books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries featuring artwork by great Japanese print artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, Kuwagata Keisai (Kitao Masayoshi), Kōno Bairei, Santō Kyōden and many others.  They are beautifully preserved, and the colors in some of the artworks are still extremely vibrant and clear.  The subject matter varies; some books are studies of artistic forms and proportions, nature, or fashion, while others are story or poetic illustration. Here’s one by Kitagawa Utamaro:

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My main challenge with scanning these books has been the fragility of the paper and dealing with the stitched binding used in these types of publications that produces a kind of reverse fold of the page.  Often the paper is so thin that the next page will show through, so in most of these I had to cut a piece of plain white paper to fit in between the folded page.  Getting the paper in place has to be done very slowly because of the fragility of the rice paper, but the end result is a really clear image that does the artwork justice!  These books are exceedingly rare and it is really great to be able to provide high quality scans so that a wider audience can experience them.

The Shell Book (Shiohi no tsuto) is a gorgeous woodblock printed book, dated 1789.  The illustrations were done by Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), considered to be one of the greatest Japanese woodblock print artists of all time who was a seminal influence on many European Impressionist artists in their use of ‘Japanese style’ or perspective in their artwork.   The beautiful arrangement of the pages allows the text to become a part of the artwork.  On this page, the words seem to bob along the surface of the water, hovering over the shells and seaweed scattered below.

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The Itchō picture album (Itchō gafu, 1770), features artwork by Hanabusa Itchō (1652-1724).  The artwork in this book caught my attention for its stylistic departure from a lot of the other books in this collection.  Hanabusa Itchō’s art is less formal and feels more poetic and abstract than some of his counterparts.  The strong outlines and dramatic compositions give his work a more personal, interpretive quality that is appealing to a modern audience.  I really love how his pages (and this and this) have a timeless quality, as if they could have as easily been drawn today as in the 1700s.

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Yoshiwara Courtesans: A New Mirror Comparing the Calligraphy of Beauties (Yoshiwara keisei: Shin bijin awase jihitsu kagami, 1784) is a beautiful book featuring art by Kitao Masanobu (Santō Kyōden, 1761-1816).  The book is a tribute of sorts to the world of the courtesan, produced in striking color and detail.  I love this portion of the book for its still vibrant colors.

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It is not as easy to tell in a reproduction, but the colors in the original are still bright and vivid.  The rich black, geometric patterned kimono on the right page is, to me, the most complex and beautiful of the entire book.

There are so many examples of the exceptional quality and craftsmanship evident in these books, it was difficult to pick just a few to share!  We are adding more to the Digital Collections page all the time, so keep an eye on that for more of these artists’ works.