Archive of Posts by Thomas Christensen

Head of Publications, Asian Art Museum. Outside the museum I do writing, translation, graphic design, and other literary stuff. My books with Asian art-related content include River of Ink and 1616: The World in Motion.

Reduction woodblock prints

Reduction, or “waste” woodblock printing is a process of printing multiple colors using a single block. The artist must determine the number of prints desired at the outset, because the process renders the block unusable for future prints.

As in other forms of woodblock printing, areas that will not hold ink are cut away. In reduction printing the artist first cuts away any areas that will be the color of the paper and makes prints from the block, using the first color over all of the printing areas. Then the same block is further cut away and a second color applied to all the areas except those that will remain the first color, and so on through the end of the process. Of course exact registration is critical with each successive application of color.

Reduction woodblock prints are among several types of prints that will be shown in the Chinese painting gallery in the northwest corner of the second floor, beginning June 30. The technique is especially popular in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou.
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What is porcelain and when was it developed?

Covered jar with fish in lotus pond, 1368-1644. China; Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt decoration and overglaze multicolor decoration. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P78+

Recently our curators of Chinese art were discussing the vexing problem of the term porcelain, which is understood differently in China and in the West. What follows summarizes some of their discussion.
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Samurai umbrella

To what extent has the romance of the samurai permeated popular contemporary culture? Here’s a clue. For $29.99 it is now possible to buy a “samurai sword handle on a push button operated nylon umbrella” complete with a nylon “scabbard” on a shoulder strap.

via Book of Joe

Out with the crowd

The relation between baseball and Asian philosophies has often been noted. Casey Stengel said, “There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had many of them,” while Yogi Berra observed that “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” Koans such as these keep us mindful of the endless cycles of life and base running, and of the fact that  — to again quote Berra — “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

This photo shows our beloved visitors from Bhutan, the monks Lopen Netem and Lopen Gyem, at a San Francisco Giants baseball game.

Five things you might not have known about the samurai

Unless you’re a real enthusiast, you might not have known these facts about Japan’s warrior class.

1. Many samurai never saw battle.
In the early centuries of the feudal period there was frequent warfare among the lords of the samurai. But during the Edo period (1615-1868) Japan was, for the most part, stable and peaceful. During this period some samurai paraphernalia was more ceremonial than functional. The sword guard at right, which was made in the 1600s, reflects this trend. Sword guards were designed to protect the hand that held the sword. While an openwork sword guard like this one might keep the hand from sliding down the blade, it does leave the hand more exposed than was usual in earlier examples.
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Gilt-y pleasures

Even as the museum is gearing up for the opening of Lords of the Samurai in a few weeks, many of us are working on upcoming shows. Here Katie Holbrow, head of conservation at the museum, is working on a gilded object for Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, which will be on display from October 23, 2009 through January 10, 2010, in our Lee, Hambrecht, and Osher Galleries on the main floor. This exhibition, which is drawn from the museum’s own collections (about 70 percent of the works were the result of a recent donation from the Doris Duke foundation) has involved the most extensive conservation work that I can remember. Many of these objects are decorated with gold, silver, gems, or glass, and, thanks to the work of the conservators, they really sparkle (wear shades)
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Sand mandalas at the museum

Only six days remain in the run of our exhibition The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, and I think everyone at the museum will be sorry to see it go. The visiting Bhutanese monks, Lopen Neten Dorji and Lopen Gyem Dorji, have been wonderful. Visitors can observe them performing daily purification rituals and prayers (puja) for sacred objects in the exhibition at 11:00 and 3:00 on most days. They have also created two beautiful sand mandalas. A detail from one is shown above.
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Making a samurai sword

The samurai carried a variety of weapons, including in many cases multiple swords. This video is a 10-minute synopsis of a longer documentary about the making of the long swords known as katana.

Samurai dog armor?

According to Pink Tentacle, this dog armor “is believed to have been created for the pet of a wealthy, high-ranking and presumably eccentric samurai or daimyo (feudal lord) in the mid to late Edo period (mid-18th to mid-19th century).”

He must have been very eccentric indeed, since such armor would not reflect a traditional Japanese attitude toward dogs during the warrior period. According to Pink Tentacle, “The samurai dog armor now belongs to an unnamed UK museum.” (Hmmm.)

Lords of the Samurai

For more than six hundred years, Japan’s government depended on a warrior class known as the samurai. As a result of the prowess and loyalty of these fighting men, the highest political authority belonged to the shogun, their ultimate leader. The shogun wielded immense power despite expressing deference to the emperor, who was recognized as the head of the country.

Samurai means “one who serves,” and these men served powerful feudal lords known as daimyo, who governed regional domains throughout Japan. It was by balancing these lords of the samurai against each other that the shogun retained power.

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