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In his preface to the Nihon soshoku taikan (Great Mirror of Japan's Decoration), Masaki Naohiko (1862–1940), then head of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, praises this five-volume compilation as one worthy of merit, not only for its richness and accuracy in illustration, but also as an invaluable tool in the understanding of traditional art. A firm grounding in the art of the past, he seems to imply, will inform the art of the future.
Little is known about the compiler of Great Mirror, Kawanabe Masao, a fact lamented by author Obuchi Takemi in his introduction to the 1975 Japanese reprint of the work. A native of Okayama Prefecture, Kawanabe graduated from the design department of Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1899, having studied interior design. He is thought to have spent time in New York in the 1910s. It is not clear whether this was before or after the release of Great Mirror in 1915. As a student of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, it is quite possible that Kawanabe knew the author of the preface, Masaki Naohiko, even though Masaki was the head of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts from 1901 to 1932. Sadly, Kawanabe was unable to enjoy any long-term success from the publication with his death in 1918, just three years after the release of Great Mirror.
Kawanabe's training at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts corresponded to a period when Japanese "design" witnessed new developments, in the aftermath of the country's opening to extensive trade with the West from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and the resulting increased recognition of Japan on the world stage. The growing international presence of Japanese art—in particular, decorative arts and crafts—was greatly assisted by its inclusion in overseas expositions, most notably, Paris (1867) and Vienna (1873). Crafts became an "economic project for the promotion of international trade." The government supported crafts and the development of design so as to augment revenue in global trade, since Japanese handicrafts represented a substantial portion of the country's export. It reasoned that beautifully designed objects would lead to further possibilities for export trade and exhibition. Even foreigners working in Japan, like the American Ernest F. Fenollosa (1853–1908), perhaps better known as an advocate of traditional Japanese fine art, encouraged the improvement in design for the decorative arts. Such a stance is also echoed in Masaki's preface when he asserts that the publication of Great Mirror "will mark an important cultural shift for our country and will undoubtedly prove a boon to the world of applied arts as well as the manufacturing (product design) industry."
Therefore, at a national level, there was considerable effort directed towards the development of zuan (a prototypical concept for "design") for the purposes of creating more attractive objects for the export trade. This, in turn, led to the establishment of craft schools and zuanka, or departments of design, at trade schools, universities, and manufacturing companies. One such early academic "design" department was established at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1896, where Great Mirror's compiler, Kawanabe Masao, was educated. He would have been established at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1896, where Great Mirror's compiler, Kawanabe Masao, was educated. He would have been among the first graduates in this department in 1899.
Obuchi Takemi believes that Kawanabe compiled Great Mirror with a designer's eye, and that as a resource for Japanese design its value was as much as a reflection of a designer's understanding about the importance of particular motifs as relates to a "design" aesthetic as it was an historical lexicon of traditional Japanese design motifs. We have little notion of the aesthetic considerations or criteria that led to Kawanabe's selection—their obvious beauty and historical significance aside—since he included no introduction, and the captions to the plates are very brief. Whether the publication was intended for foreign consumption is not entirely clear as the caption texts are in Japanese, but it is clear that the overriding concern was on the imagery, not the accompanying texts.
As a compendium of traditional design motifs, Great Mirror follows in the tradition of pattern design books issued from the mid-seventeenth century onwards known as hinagatabon, which contained kimono designs and were intended mainly as a source-book for copying. These books assisted a client's selection of a garment, and many were commissioned by drapers or cloth merchants. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, illustrated pattern or design books of other fields and artistic genres were released, making them an important resource for Japanese craftsmen. They depicted designs for lacquerware, ceramics, textiles, sword-fittings, woodcarving, and netsuke, to name a few. Even Japanese artists much celebrated in the West, such as the woodblock-print designer Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), created illustrations for such publications.
Pattern design books continued to be developed into the Meiji era (1868–1912) and the Taisho period (1912–26) and were a significant aspect of color-printed books from the 1890s until the mid-1930s. They encompassed the tradition of source-books that had a practical application for manufacturing like those in the hinagatabon tradition and to the category of which Masaki Naohiko suggests that Great Mirror would have great influence. Another feature of design books of this period is the "fine-art" book with lavish color plates. At the forefront of contemporary and traditional design books (also known as zuanshu, or "design compendiums," by this time) was the publisher of Great Mirror, the Kyoto-based company Unsodo. From its establishment in 1891 until the 1930s, the company produced many woodblock-printed fine-art and deluxe pattern and design books that are characterized by an extremely high level of block-cutting and printing. They marketed their stock both in Japan and abroad. Their publications of contemporary artists and designers included the "Neo-Rinpa" artists Kamisaka Sekka (1866–1942) and his pupil Furuya KOrin (1875–1910), who was especially instrumental in the development of Japanese "modern" design in the early twentieth century.
Great Mirror is clearly a product of this vogue for beautifully crafted design books, and similar traditional design books served as a complement to the more "modern" designs issued by the Unsodo books such as Sekka's Momoyogusa (Worlds of Things, 1909), or Korin's Korin moyo (Korin's Designs, 1907). While a product that could be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level or as a sumptuous resource of decorative motifs, Great Mirror also expresses pride in Japan's own art historical past, not only as a validation of its own rich artistic traditions but also in making this known on the international stage. Masaki Naohiko's preface—as well as the colophons in Great Mirror, such as those prefacing volumes 2 and 3—ekiko shukin ("unravel the old/cultivate the new") or koko shoki ("cherish the old/appreciate the unusual")—remind the reader that one must appreciate the old as the new is explored. Such introspection is not surprising if we consider the climate in Japan from the Meiji era onwards. With the government's move towards modernization and industrialization along Western lines at this time, society and culture had been exposed to dramatic change. It was the government's stand, voiced in slogans like wakon yosai ("Japanese mind with Occidental knowledge"), that this change could be effected through a synthesis of Japanese thought and modernization. However, questions about the viability or efficacy of such a stance—with some seeing modernization (Westernization) at the cost of Japanese traditions—awakened in some quarters a nationalist sentiment, with many looking to the past for guidance in the search for a national identity. A staunch advocate of traditional arts, Masaki Naohiko's obvious pride in traditional art and design bubbles over in his concluding words in the preface: "this book will have fully realized its aim, if it in any way serves to strengthen our country."
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Comprising some 600 designs drawn from both secular and sacred objects spanning the Asuka (552–645) to Edo (1615–1868) periods, the artistic techniques represented by the designs in A Mirror of Japanese Ornament are diverse, and the range of media broad, including metalwork, textiles, lacquer, painting, and carved wood. Yet as a "mirror" of deign, A Mirror of Japanese Ornament is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive in its art historical scope. It does include designs from a number of objects that are today considered significant national treasures, such as those on Plates 52 and 53, or from complexes designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the Shosoin (see Plates 12–19). But not included, for example, are designs from objects pre-dating the Asuka period, namely from Japan's pre-historic JOmon (c. 10,500–c. 300 BC) and Yayoi (c. 300 BC–AD 300) periods to the ornamented artifacts and mural paintings of the Kofun or Tomb period (c. 300–552). Perhaps this omission can be explained by the fact that at the time of the compilation the comparatively fewer objects of these eras were seen more as archaeology than art history and may have held little interest for designers of the period. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that Kawanabe does not include the artistic developments in the Meiji era, when Japanese crafts, in particular, were making great strides in the development of design. Nevertheless, Obuchi suggests that Great Mirror is a testimony to Kawanabe's pioneering spirit in the introduction of traditional Japanese design to new fields. Whatever its intent, however, design books such as A Mirror of Japanese Ornament are, to borrow the words of the late Japanese book scholar Jack Hillier, objects that can be appreciated as "an expensive gift in thoroughly good taste, admired as a splendid product of the publishers."
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