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This Month's Selection:

Japan-A History In Art

by Bradly Smith

Consultants:
Mdoka Kanai, University of Tokyo Shinichi Nagai, Women's Art University of Tokyo Kazuko Yamakawan, Bungei Shunju
Reviewd by Peter Grabas

Printed in English the quality of this book is fair and a good overview of Japanese history as seen through art, but not quite an art history book. Its size at 9 x 13 in. fools you in thinking it as a 'coffee table' book usually meant for casual glancing (and to endorse a host as a cultured individual) is more than that by providing a visual context to the Japanese history within. This is the strength of this book, in that the text explaining the history is augmented by pictures 'that speak a thousand words'. When we read text our memorization and absorption is greatly enhanced when accompanied by images and it is the combination of good writing by scholars and the choice of images that makes this book an asset.

Divided into 10 periods begining with sculptures from ancient/archaic Japan the visual historical odyssey continues upto the pre-modern era of the 1910's. Each period is written to describe the salient points of that time including politics and social pressures that propelled that history. This book has a very comfortable middle ground between scholarship and picturebook, enhancing the narrative with comtemporary images of that time. The narrative is straightforward and often uses a story form written from observations of that historical period making it an interesting read. If you read the book I believe you would have a good grasp of what shaped the Japanese politically, spritually and economically over the millenia. But the scope of this book stops there and more sources should be consulted for a better overiew of Japanese art and culture.

A good work for a historical overview, this book should not be considered a source for art history though as the most significant aspects of Japanese art are not present because they did not relate to its historical narrative. Dance, music, sculpture and painting are covered only as it related to the explanation of that contemporary history and not the social significance that these arts had at the time in shaping the culture and society. In example is the Hirosige print of the wave. Although a pillar in art history it is not present in the book since it did not relate to the politics or economic movements of that time. Beautiful landscape paintings for instance do not appear in this book since they are not a historical record. There is strength in the images chosen as they are predominantly centered around historical subjects, people and there interaction in politics, war and econmics. With this in mind I think a reader will be well served to pick this book for a historical overview.

Peter V. Grabas
link to their bio


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