Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Songs of the Garden by Kitagawa Utamaro.

Songs of the Garden by Kitagawa Utamaro, introduction, notes, and translations by Yasuko Betchaku and Joan B. Marviss. Hardcover book (no dust jacket) published by Metropolitan Museum of Art and Secker and Warburg 1984, unpaginated fold out book with colour and black and white illustrations throughout.

“Although far removed in subject matter from the elegant courtesans for which Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) is justly renowned, the "Book of Insects" (Ehon mushi erabi, literally translated as "Picture Book of Selected Insects") is not merely a footnote to the artist's lifework. Rather, it is a pivotal work, one that assured Utamaro's future artistic career and anticipated subsequent developments in Japanese art.  Although this book is now treasured for its illustrations, it was originally designed not simply as a picture book but as an anthology of specially commissioned poems on the subject of insects. In fact, the verses composed for each plate, new translations of which appear at the back of this volume, are appropriate poetic companions to Utamaro's unorthodox drawings.”

It’s hard to not be impressed by this book.  It is a real joy.  Every frame is so beautiful and the detail, even in reproduction, is amazing.  Japanese art is not an area that I’m particularly familiar with, but it’s not hard to see a book like this one and realize that it is something special.

I guess a slipcase is often an indicator (or pseudo indicator) that something special is contained inside.  In this case the slipcase is protecting the book from more possible damage than a slipcase normally does, as the covers of the book are not hinged together with a spine. This is to allow the book to be spread out and viewed as one continuous sequence, which is possibly how the book was originally published… but I’m not 100% sure about this.  If it wasn’t, well it’s a nice effect regardless and does give the book a special quality, I’d even say an exotic quality, that most other books don’t have.  Without the slipcase the two covers could cause damage to the pages and that’s something we don’t want to happen.

It’s a little disappointing that the slipcase has a number of marks and stains, but that’s the secondhand book business I guess.  You’ve got to take what you can get.  What I don’t understand is how the front cover got a small mark as well (bottom of the white bit).  The rest of the book is in near perfect condition and I guess it’s this “rest of the book”/the illustrations that matter the most when trying to sell a book like this one.  So far I’ve had no on line interest in this title, but I reckon once I point the book out to some of my many discerning bricks and mortar customers, I should be able to sell it.

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