Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lost Art

Earlier this year I introduced a book on the history of Japanese picture postcards, showing a few examples of the art as it developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the earlier post explained, picture postcards of those days have gradually been replaced by digital images manipulated on computers, photographs owing much of their appeal to Adobe Photoshop. Really, the difference is like day and night and in the eyes of some a serious art form has been rudely replaced by glossy souvenir shop photos.

To my regret the days of sifting through boxes of old postcards in Japanese flea markets and junk shops never turned up any treasures like those shown here, but that is perhaps a naive regret. The examples in Art of the Japanese Postcard all come from the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The book also includes several penetrating essays about the art as it developed through the late Meiji Period, into the Taishô and later Shôwa eras. Here are more examples from that excellent book.

This card created just after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) shows an image of the “Japanese Empire.” Japan is centered against the military flag, the rising sun, a time when the country was sometimes referred to as the Land of the Rising Sun. The process is color lithograph, collotype and embossing; ink and metallic pigment on card stock. The back is undivided.

An example by Hashimoto Kunisuke from an unidentified series, inscribed 1904 and showing crowds gathering to read the news. The style in this card is influenced by Western pen and ink drawings. The artist skillfully captures the anticipation of the crowd as they huddle around a posted notice of war news. This one is color lithograph; ink on card stock, also with an undivided back.

The artist is Kawabata Gyokushô and the subject is the torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine, a scenic spot near Hiroshima. It is one card in a series commemorating the ultimate victory of the Japanese over the Russian forces. Color woodblock and embossed texture; organic and inorganic colorants on Japanese paper adhered to card stock; undivided back.

This card shows a cancellation mark of 1907 and is by the artist Nakazawa Hiromitsu. It shows an overhead view of two swimmers and a lifesaver (red cap and goggles). Color lithograph; ink on card stock; undivided back.

Information about this card is limited, but it is another from the late Meiji era and shows three women gathering salt. The striking color and line make the card a standout. Notice how the artist has created movement of the water. Color lithograph; ink and metallic pigment on card stock, with an undivided back.

Another card with scant information, this one shows a dragonfly with two fingers at the bottom reaching out to catch it. It is from 1908 and is a color lithograph with ink on textured card stock. The back is divided into thirds.

A personal favorite, this card uses an image from a scene in Chûshingura (Revenge of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers) when Kinpei is hunting boar in the rain. The boar tells us it is a New Year’s card from 1911. The artist is unknown but the card is a color lithograph and embossing with ink and metallic pigment on card stock. Once again the back is divided into thirds.

Certainly in a category far, far removed from the other examples, this is one of my own New Year cards from around 1985. The medium is Japanese sumi (India ink) and watercolor on Japanese card stock.


  1. I enjoyed both the post cards and the comments you made about them. The one that you did back some years ago, I remember receiving, I think, because I remember that it made me think of "The Land of the Rising Sun".

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America