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Report on the talk ‘Ehon Don Kihōte’: The precursor of the Serizawa books

In the Third Thursday Lecture of 21 March, Dr Rosanna Rios Perez (Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow 2023-24) delivered a vibrant lecture about an under-researched aspect of Japanese book and art history. In her detailed study of Serizawa Keisuke’s 芹澤銈介 (1895-1984) version of the celebrated Spanish novel Don Quixote, Dr Rios Perez explored the genesis of this work, contextualized it against its cultural milieu, and discussed the transformations it underwent in later editions.

Shinpan Ehon Don Kihōte. Serizawa Keisuke 芹沢銈介. 1976, private collection.

In the first part of the lecture, Dr Rios Perez reviewed the complex publication history of Serizawa Keisuke’s Ehon Don Kihōte 絵本どんきほうて. This work was commissioned by Carl Keller (1872-1955), an enthusiastic collector of editions of Cervantes’ novel. Although Keller possessed a number of Japanese translations of Don Quixote, he was somewhat dissatisfied with their illustrations, which reproduced Gustave Doré’s (1832-1883) iconic portrayals of the knight errant. To remedy this, in 1935 he decided to commission a Japanese artist to create a new illustrated version of Cervantes’ novel.

Keller sought advice from Jugaku Bunshō 寿岳文章 (1900-1992), a keen bibliophile and owner of the fine-press Kōjitsuan 向日庵 together with his wife Shizu しづ (1901-1981).  Jugaku offered to support the publication of this version of Don Quixote and consulted with Yanagi Sōetsu 柳宗悦 (1889-1961), a friend of Keller and leading exponent of the Mingei 民芸 movement, about the style of the illustrations. Jugaku and Yanagi suggested taking inspiration from tanrokubon 丹緑本, a particular kind of hand-coloured woodblock-printed book produced in the first half of the seventeenth century. Keller’s commission was outsourced to Serizawa Keisuke, a promising artist active in Mingei circles who had previously collaborated with Jugaku.

When Serizawa began working on his illustrations for Don Quixote, he planned on creating thirty-one scenes that were completely free of any text. Apart from portraying the protagonist wearing Japanese garments and armours, Serizawa took inspiration from the visual language of Yamato-e 大和絵 and used stylized techniques such as hikime kagibana 引目鉤鼻 (slits for the eyes and hooked noses) to depict faces and fukinukiyatai 吹抜屋台 (blown-off roof) to represent the interior of buildings. Following Jugaku and Yanagi’s advice, Serizawa also tried to replicate the simplicity and restrained colour palette of tanrokubon, characterized by touches of red, green and yellow pigments applied haphazardly by hand over the outline of each illustration printed in black ink.

Ehon Don Kihote 絵本どんきほうて (The Illustrated Don Quixote). Serizawa Keisuke 芹沢銈介. 1936. Museum number 1973,0723,0.151. © The Trustees of the British Museum

However, Serizawa struggled to complete Keller’s commission, as he was unfamiliar with woodblock printing techniques. Production of Ehon Don Kihōte was thus paused, while the artist explored new approaches to printmaking. During this period, Serizawa endeavoured to reproduce patterns on paper using stencils, a technique which he first employed to publish a book entitled Wazome egatari 和染絵語 in 1936. Satisfied with the result, Serizawa resumed the production of Ehon Don Kihōte, which was completed in the autumn of the same year as a limited edition of 75 copies printed with stencils and with hand-applied colour highlights.

Wazome egatari and Ehon Don Kihōte marked the beginning of Serizawa’s career as prolific book artist and laid the foundation for the development of his signature technique of paper dyeing (somegami 染紙). While Serizawa’s early books were produced using kappazuri 合羽摺, a technique in which ink is applied directly on the stencils, from 1939 he began experimenting paper-dyeing with katazome 型染, where stencils are used to apply a resist-dye rice paste and ink is applied on the exposed areas of the paper.

In the second part of the lecture, Dr Rios Perez analysed Serizawa’s book production and networks. On the one hand, she looked at his collaborations with Japanese artists, with members of the Mingei movement, and other key figures of the Japanese art world of the time, such as the publisher Moriguchi Tarō 森口太郎 and gallerist Yamanouchi Kinzaburō 山内金三郎 (1886-1966), who was also an artist, publisher, and collector. On the other hand, she explored Serizawa’s international links, in particular his long-standing relationship with the Catalan ethnologist and surrealist sculptor Eudald Serra i Güell (1911-2002).

Dr Rios Perez further reviewed Serizawa’s book production against milestones in the artist’s life—e.g. his visit to Okinawa and the study of bingata 紅型 dyeing or his growing interest in papermaking—suggesting how these might have had an impact on Serizawa’s style and works. Indeed, Serizawa gradually developed a very different aesthetic as he kept experimenting with paper dyeing. For instance, from around the 1940s his work begun to display more vibrant colours, bold patterns, and dynamic compositions, stylistic elements which may have been inherited from bingata dyeing. This gradual change was already evident in some earlier works and increasingly more so in his later production.

In the final part of her talk, Dr Rios Perez demonstrated how these stylistic features characterize Serizawa’s new rendition Don Quixote, titled Shinpan Ehon Don Kihōte 新板絵本どんきほうて, which was published in 1976 with the support of Yamanouchi Kinzaburō as a limited edition of 185 copies.

Despite the success of Serizawa’s publications, his fame as book artist has perhaps been overshadowed by his craftsmanship for textile dyeing, for which he was declared a National Living Treasure in 1956. With her lecture and scholarship, however, Dr Rios Perez has made an important contribution by presenting a more comprehensive and well-rounded analysis of Serizawa’s artworks, paving the way for further research on twentieth-century book artists.

Alessandro Bianchi
Head of World Collections at Cambridge University Libraries