66. Photolithographic Reproduction: A Ponderous Lead-up To A Sad Story

66. Photolithographic Reproduction: A Ponderous Lead-up to a Sad Story

A previous reminiscence, no. 47, was about the old flimsy, blue-covered reproduction books for Chinese painting called Shanghai-ban, which were printed by collotype. Another, generally superior process for reproducing Chinese paintings (or anything else) in black-and-white is photolithography, which was used more in Japan than in China. It produced sharper, more distinct pictures with finer gradations of tone. In those bygone days before the widespread use of digital imagery, art historians necessarily depended heavily on printed reproductions of works of art in their research. For Chinese painting specialists, most of these were in books published in China and Japan. As I have recounted in previous Reminiscences, I regularly gave a non-credit, off-hours course for my graduate students, which they were required to attend, on the bibliography of our field, both textual and pictorial sources, teaching them what the available materials were and how to use them. Some sense of the range of reproduction books we had to learn to use can be gained from the Bibliography pages at the back of my Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings, It would be greatly expanded if sources for Ming-Qing painting were included.

In more recent times, black-and-white reproduction is usually done through a halftone process in which tonal gradations are produced with lighter or heavier concentrations of dots. In cruder printing, the dots can be seen with the naked eye (a phrase I can never use without remembering Arch Wenley's oft-repeated joke, "To the eye of the naked observer, it would appear . . . etc"); in finer work, a magnifying glass is needed. I was reminded of this dotted mode of printing when yesterday's mail brought me an exhibition catalog of Roy Lichtenstein's "Landscapes in Chinese Style," a series that he did in his last years. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in New York sent me this, after some correspondence, because some of his works in this series were based on reproductions in my old Skira Chinese Painting book, a marked-up copy of which, they report, was in his library. And indeed, some of the pictures appear to have been taken from plates in that book, much simplified and mostly rendered in big rows of heavier and lighter dots, with a few sharper and colored images added. The artist is playing on the gradations-by-dotting character of the original reproductions. Lichtenstein himself said of them, "I'm not seriously doing a Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature. It's really supposed to look like a printed version." If one were to quibble (as one doesn't do with Pop artists, who are pursuing their own ends, beyond rational thought) he would point out that these are not really fair to Skira, since the dotting in Skira's plates is extremely fine, needing strong magnification to be visible, certainly not visible to the naked (no, not that again.)

Photolithographic reproduction has no dots, is very sharp, and can produce excellent tonal gradations; it is the process that best approximates the character of a photograph. I learned more about how it is done when I persuaded the Freer Gallery to have my small picture book Chinese Album Leaves (1961) printed, using that process, by the Kyoto publishers Benridô, whom I had come to know well during my long stays in that city. When Chang Ta-ch'ien came to Kyoto in the fall of 1954, while I was a Fulbright student there, it was to bring paintings from his collection to have them photographed and eventually published by Benridô in his four-volume Taifûdô Meiseki (Ta-feng-t'ang ming-chi)—he recognized better than I the superiority of the photolithographic mode of reproduction, and was willing to pay the extra cost of publishing his collection-catalog through them. The photographing for my small book on album leaves had to be done at the Freer Gallery, since no Freer holdings can leave the building. On Benridô's instruction, our photographer had to make large glass negatives for all the paintings, with the images the exact size that the reproductions were to be—no change in size possible. Moreover, the images had to be reversed, which was done by photographing them through a prism. The full-size reversed glass negatives were sent to Kyoto and used by Benridô for this excellent (picture-wise) little book. If you see a copy for sale cheap, buy it.

There were several famous publishing firms in Japan that used this mode of printing, and their Chinese painting reproduction books were—still are—among our treasures, presenting in excellently clear plates works that in many cases are now lost or inaccessible. Hakubundô in Osaka was another; and still another, perhaps most famous of all, was the Otsuka Kôgeisha in Tokyo. Specialists in Japanese Buddhist art know their great series from the 1930s,Ten Great Temples of Nara, with photographs made by the famous Nara photographers Asuka-en. Most importantly for our purpose, it was they who published the major Chinese painting reproduction books Tô Sô Gen Min meiga taikan (Grand View of Famous Paintings of Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming), 1929, and Sô Gen Min Shin meiga taikan (Grand View of Famous Paintings of Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing), 1931. These were based on two historic government-sponsored exhibitions of Chinese painting of the same names, drawn largely from collections in China but including also works in Japan, that were held in 1929 and 1931 at the Imperial Household Museum in Ueno Park in Tokyo. (For an account of these exhibitions and their political context, see Aida Wang's book Parting the Mists, chap. 4.) Both were issued in two-volume normal-size editions (about 8" x 10") and in large luxury editions, with fewer but larger reproductions, around 18" x 24"—the glass negatives made for the latter by Otsuka Kôgeisha must have been the size of window panes. Much of the contents of both smaller editions were later included in the single-volume publication Shina meiga hôkan, "The Pageant of Chinese Painting," published by them in 1936.

All this sets us up to arrive at last at the Sad Story, It was told to me by the Japanese dealer Eda Yûji, shop name Bungadô, who has appeared often in these Reminiscences, since I spent so much time with him and liked him so much. He told of hearing, during the war years, the news that Otsuka Kôgeisha was selling its glass negatives; and, grasping immediately how important it was to preserve the ones for the two Chinese painting reproduction books, especially the large ones, many of which were the best surviving records of important paintings in China that could be lost or destroyed, he hurried off to try to buy them and store them for safety. But when he arrived he was told that he was too late, they had already been sold and taken away—by someone, he learned, who meant to wash off the images chemically so that the glass could be resold as window glass, which because of wartime conditions was in short supply.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...