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Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan

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The Japanese literary tradition, dating from as early as the 8th century, is among the richest and most enduring of any country in the world, and ehon, or "picture books," although little known in the West are one of the glories of world art.

Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan will demonstrate the variety of visual languages used by artists over many historical periods from 764 to 2005. It will include approximately 200 books with printed illustrations, as well as related manuscripts, drawings, woodblock prints, and photographs. Drawn from the Library's collections, a wide range of works will be featured, including two examples of Empress Shôtoku's Million Prayer Towers (764-770), Utamaro's celebrated Shiohi no tsuto (Gifts of the Ebb Tide, also known as The Shell Book, 1789), and Hokusai's Fugaku Hyakkei (One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, 1834). The exhibition will also showcase more recent examples of Japanese book art, with books by some of the leading photographers of the 20th century, modernist books by artists like Koshiro Onchi, avant-garde works associated with early 20th-century movements such as MAVO, precursors of present-day anime, and works by internationally known contemporary artists like Hiroshi.

The exhibition will be organized into five thematic sections. Section One, "Origins," on view in the Library's Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery, will introduce visitors to early Japanese manuscripts and Buddhist works from the 8th through 17th centuries, which were precursors to the printed books in the main body of the exhibition. Sections Two through Five will be on view in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall. Section Two, "The Art of the Book," focuses on the structural elements and choices available to artists, the language of the book, types of books, formats, bindings, and genres. In this section, the visitor will view some of the most celebrated, beautiful, and rare examples of the Japanese book with printed illustrations, many in the finest copies known.

The final three sections present groups of pictures of similar subjects drawn in different styles, following a traditional Japanese classification that reflects an ancient Chinese division of the universe in "Heaven" (ten), which includes religious, cosmic, and supernatural themes; "Earth" (chi), which concerns nature, natural history, topography, and landscape; and "Humanity" (jin), which is devoted to scenes from literature, history, and fantasy, as well as representations of daily life.

The Library has published a 320-page companion volume featuring 70 key works from the exhibition, with 250 color illustrations. Purchase a copy at The Library Shop today.

Additional Resources

Ehon Symposium, October 25, 2006

Kitagawa Utamaro, Gifts of the Ebb Tide (The Shell Book) (Shiohi no tsuto) [Flash plug-in required]

Kamisaka Sekka, Flowers of a Hundred Worlds (Momoyogusa), volume 1 [Flash plug-in required]

Reading Ehon: A detailed look at "Nesting cranes and pine tree" by Yamaguchi Soken (PDF - 5 MB)

Select images of ehon in the Digital Gallery

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