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Mary Ainsworth Collection of Japanese Artist Books

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The Tokugawa Shogunate imposed a strict social hierarchy on Japan during the Edo (1603-1867) period. This well defined system of social status meant that merchants - members of the wealthiest class - were excluded from running the government. Combined with a period of peace and prosperity, this exclusion from the expensive past time of governing left the merchant class with an excess of capital. The merchants used their disposable income to patronize the arts: printers, artists, courtesans, and actors of the Kabuki theatres benefited greatly from their largess. This lifestyle, with its celebration of pleasure, beauty, and sensuality, became known as Ukiyo or "the floating world." Pictures of the floating world, or Ukiyo-e, were often included in travel books, works on popular Kabuki actors, artist copy-books, books of Kimono and Ikebana (flower arranging) patterns, and picture books for the illiterate.

In 1868, Japan underwent major political and social upheaval. After the abdication of the last Tokugawa Shogun and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, the West was finally allowed access to a nation that had sealed its borders to outside influences for many years. Western traders brought back to Europe scores of wood-block prints and Japanese artist books, and many western artists and intellectuals visited Japan. These works created a rage for Japanese aesthetics in Europe and America, inspiring many artists, particularly the Impressionists, to mimic their bold lines and dramatic use of form.

Mary A. Ainsworth, an Oberlin College Alumna of 1889, first traveled to Japan in 1905. Over the next 25 years, she steadily acquired a collection of Japanese prints and books of impressive breadth and depth. Ainsworth bequeathed her collection to Oberlin College in 1950. The Oberlin College Library’s portion of the Ainsworth Collection consists of 114 lots amounting to over three hundred volumes of Japanese Artist books. The works are mostly concentrated in the late Edo (1603-1867) and Meiji periods (1868-1912) with a few from the Taisho period (1912-1926).  The collection also holds seven wood blocks for printing (two surfaced with etched metal plates).  View inventory.

Meaghan Brown & Ed Vermue

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