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Art and Science in Japanese Woodblock-Printed Books

of the Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries


Imao Keinen (1845-1924), Keinen kachō gafu, vol. 2, summer, E. great tit and hydrangea

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Imao Keinen (1845-1924), Keinen kachō gafu 景年花鳥畫譜 (Keinen’s flower-and-bird painting manual).  4 volumes with double leaves, East Asian style; vol. 1 spring, vol. 2 summer, vol. 3 autumn, vol. 4 winter.  Color woodcut. Published in Kyoto by Nishimura Sōemon; carved by Tanaka Jirokichi; printed by Miki Jizaburō. Prefaces by Suzuki Hyakunen, dated 1888, and Yamamoto Akio, dated 1889. Spencer Library (Special Collections) Ellis Aves G21.

 

In contrast to the botanical manual of Iwasaki Tsunemasa and the “comprehensive” manual of flora and fauna designed by Kondō Ariyoshi, this “manual” presents images in the ancient and very popular pictorial tradition known in Japanese as kachō-e (flower-and-bird painting).

 

This tradition originated in China, where it reached a peak during the reign of the art-loving emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126) in the Song dynasty. Song-dynasty flower-and-bird paintings were avidly collected and emulated in Japan, inspiring new bursts of creativity in the genre over the centuries.

 

Although done some eight centuries later, this album perpetuates key elements of the Song tradition, namely, close-up views of a few carefully selected birds and flowering plants, each delicately detailed, precisely colored, and artfully arranged to decorative as well as naturalistic ends. Plants fan out across shallow picture spaces to show leaves and flowers from different angles and provide perches for beautiful birds that, like the plants, are seen from various angles as they engage in different activities. The distinct beauties of the four seasons are highlighted. The selected examples show the fresh beauty of spring cherry blossoms, the warmth of a summer pond, and the tattered leaves and dry seed pods of lotus plants in winter, the mood of each accompanied by birds of complementary colors and activities. The birds are identified in small squares of gold silk glued above the borders in the upper corners of the pages.

 

The nineteenth-century was a heyday for kachō-e in Japan. The famous ukiyo-e artists Hokusai and Hiroshige excelled in this genre, as did a many artists in other schools of painting. Jack Hillier, author of The Art of the Japanese Book, begins his chapter on “Kachō-e and Natural History Books” with the disclaimer:  “In the nineteenth century, there is such a plethora of books entirely of kachō-e or containing a diversity of prints including those of birds, flowers and the like, that only a representative selection is possible here.”1 That Hillier selected Imao Keinen for inclusion is indicative of his stature, as is the characterization of his Keinen kachō gafu as not only the artist’s finest work but also “one of the most splendid productions of the Meiji period.” Louise Norton Brown went so far as to suggest that it “is perhaps the most beautiful work of this kind ever printed in Japan.”

 

Writing when the artist was still alive, Brown paints a vivid picture of the man, his art, and his influence. A few excerpts will suffice to suggest the range of all three:

 

Imao Keinen…is the doyen of present-day Japanese painters. He was born in Kyōto on August 12th, 1845, the third son of Imao Senka. When eleven years old he commenced his artistic education and entered the studio of Umesawa in Tōkyo. Three years later he joined classes in painting and [calligraphy] under Suzuki Hyakunen and took up the study of Chinese classics with Yumin Sangoku. In 1871 he established a private art school in Kyōto, which became one of the famous Japanese studios. It is safe to say that two-thirds of the modern painters of Japan have been Keinen’s pupils…Like all great artists, Keinen never became a slave to any one school…Even Occidental art had its influence upon him and he made a large collection of European printed pictures. Gardening has been Keinen’s chief hobby, aside from his profession, however, and he is known among the old school garden makers as an expert cultivator of bonsai, or trained pot plants.2

 

If further evidence of Imao Keinen’s position is the art world of modern Japan is needed, it can be found in the list of prominent positions he held over the course of his life: professor at the Kyoto Prefectural School of Painting from 1880, member of the Art Committee of the Imperial Household from 1904, and member of the Imperial Art Academy from 1919.  

 

Sources:

Louise Norton Brown, Book Illustration in Japan (New York: Routledge, 1924), 198-201.

 

Jack Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, vol. 2 (London: Sotheby’s, 1987), 800, 969.

 

Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992), 41.

 

1 Hillier, 800.

2 Brown, 200.

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