A Japanese ink painting of a frog is gazed with contentment. Behind the frog is a calligraphed story in Japanese.
Japan, Toad and Mouse (detail), late 18th–early 19th century, ink on paper. Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, 2013.29.157

Poet frogs, mustard-seed books, and other tales from “The Art of Literacy”

By Tim Gihring //

More than a thousand years ago, in the early 11th century, Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, a book often called the world’s first novel. The name was a nom-de-plume. The author was a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, and she and a few other noblewomen—notably Sei Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book—led a remarkable and brief female literary moment. For most of the next millennium, books in Japan—like almost everywhere else—would be largely the domain of elite men.

Mai Yamaguchi, Mia’s associate curator of Japanese art, explores the colorful, sometimes fraught unwinding of that exclusivity in “The Art of Literacy,” now on view in Mia’s Cargill Gallery. It covers most of the Edo period, from the 1600s through the 1800s, when women and non-elites benefitted from changes in education and publishing—and others pushed back. Yamaguchi tells the story in paintings, prints, calligraphy tools, and the tiniest book in Mia’s collection, a largely visual approach that suggests the close relationship between art and narrative in the growth of literacy.

Japan, Illustrated Book of Vendors, date unknown,
woodblock printed book; ink on paper. Mary Griggs Burke Collection, gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015.79.639

One throughline is frogs. In a painting combining text and illustration, a huge, amusingly sanguine frog reproaches a mouse for his negative attitude. In another painting, frogs engage in a poetry contest, some dressed in court attire, others more naturally nude. Most of the unclothed frogs are grinding ink for the elites, though one appears to be spitting ink on a screen, forming the first line of a poem, a commentary perhaps on the spread of poetry among the (less sartorially privileged) masses.

The tiny tome, about the size of a large postage stamp, is a so-called mustard-seed book—named for their small stature—and is actually wordless, comprised of illustrations showing men at work.   Another series of (larger) illustrations in the show parody these archetypes by replacing men with women in the workplace. Indeed, with the rise of woodblock printing, many illustrated books were produced without narrative at this time, aimed at people who couldn’t afford to buy paintings. Some were travelogues, like the album included here of Hokusai’s paintings of famous sights, from 1830. It would have offered a rare glimpse for most people, given the need for permission to travel, though all the locations are in Japan—the outside world was off-limits.

The world crept in anyway, of course, and Yamaguchi demonstrates this with an odd painting of three men at a table: one Japanese, one Chinese, one Western. Above them, in an allegorical scene of a raging fire, the differences between them are illustrated. The Chinese throw buckets of water at the fire, the Westerners use a hose, the Japanese have deployed sumo wrestlers with huge tubs of water but seem to be watching the others instead. With literacy came curiosity. And at the dawn of the 19th century, Japan was questioning which path to follow. In the end—more educated, emboldened, and enriched—it would choose its own.