dsfdsf (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Kimono designer’s pattern book, 1860s, hand painted book (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — The Chicago Botanic Garden, located on 385 acres in a suburb just north of the city, is one of the great treasures of Chicago. In addition to its thirty different garden types and natural habitats, it hosts a variety of exhibitions on the grounds and indoors, usually with a horticultural theme. The Lenhardt Library, situated in a pavilion a short walk from the Visitor Center, is currently displaying a series of Japanese woodblock prints that are filled with plants, flowers, trees, and depictions of people walking through gardens and damp landscapes. The exhibition is titled Moku Hanga: The Art of Japanese Woodblock Printing, and the major difference between this and other exhibitions of Japanese moku hanga (woodblock printing) is that the prints were all made as pattern and design books for the Japanese market.

Dye samples: dyed wool and ink on paper (click to enlarge)

The items are displayed in just two glass cases, but they contain a wealth of visually rich art and historically fascinating information. The books were created in a time-span beginning in the late 18th century and ending in the early 20th century. They were presented for customers to select a favored design, after which craftsmen would paint or print the pattern on the surface of the purchased item, whether they were kimonos, screens, lacquered panels, umbrellas, wallpaper, or other commercial items. Despite the commercial usage of these books, they were made using exactly the same woodblock technique that is so highly prized in the art prints of Japanese masters like Utamaro and Haronobu.

Installation view of the Japanese pattern books

Lisa Pevtzow, the collector who provided the material for this exhibition, explained to Hyperallergic what appeals to her about this unlikely collection: “I do think the quality of many of these design prints is as high as with any of the famous woodblock artists.” Looking at one book of designs by Sekka Kamisaka, opened to a page with a scene of a shoreline and hanging branches glimpsed across a screen, it’s hard to disagree: there’s the same feeling for the poignancy and mystery of the landscape that you see in Hokusai’s prints, suggested by selecting just a few details and arranging them in an almost abstract pattern, all executed with a mastery in the cutting and coloring of the woodblocks.

Arabesque patterns, mid nineteenth century, woodblock printed book and ink on paper (click to enlarge)

It is curious why this material hasn’t been exhibited more often. “There really hasn’t been interest in it until recently,” Pevtzow said. “Even a Japanese friend of mine, whose family was involved in the design business for hundreds of years, asked me why I wanted to collect all this stuff. She thought it was like someone collecting old Sears catalogues.”

The items on display range from landscape and nature scenes to decorative arrangements of plant motifs, some of them influenced by Japanese contact with Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements in Europe. There is also an intriguing card of brightly-colored woolen circles, which turn out to be color samples, each one with its particular formula written in pen and ink beside it. Another thing I discovered at this exhibition is that even though faster methods of production were available to Japanese designers in the late nineteenth century (such as engraved or lithographic reproduction), they still produced these commercial books through the extremely time-consuming moku hanga method. Maybe that’s why these objects are, after all, very different from mass-produced Sears catalogues: slower is sometimes better.

Sekka Kamisaka, “Chigusa: All Kinds of Things” (1903), woodblock printed book on paper

Page from a hand-inked and hand-bound kimono pattern book (image courtesy the Chicago Botanic Garden)

Moku Hanga: The Art of Japanese Woodblock Printing continues at the Chicago Botanic Garden (1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, Illinois) through August 10.

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Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...