01 March 2021 - 05 September 2021, VILLA MALPENSATA
An extraordinary mosaic of six hundred small masterpieces expressing the aesthetic finesse and technical mastery typical of Japan.
Presented to the public for the first time, the postcards on display have been selected from almost six thousand images in the Ceschin Pilone Collection, the largest in Europe.
Set up in Spazio Maraini on the ground floor of Villa Malpensata, the exhibition "Souvenir du Japon. Postcards from the Ceschin Pilone Collection (1898-1960)" presents six hundred postcards, carefully selected by curator Moira Luraschi to show visitors the extraordinary creativity and refined execution with which Japan has elevated the postcard to a true art form.
The Collection, originally assembled by Marco Fagioli, was placed on deposit at MUSEC in 2018 by the Ada Ceschin and Rosanna Pilone Foundation, MUSEC's long-standing partner in the field of photography and the art of the Orient.
The extraordinary collection is an excellent representation of the multiplicity of subject techniques used in Japan in the golden years of the postcard, from the early 20th century to the First World War, and in the decades that followed.
Today’s picture postcards originate from the non-illustrated postal card, the famous Correspondenz-Karte, which was issued by the Austro-Hungarian Postal Service for the first time on the 1st October 1869. As this was a type of pre-stamped card, whose message was exposed for all to see, it enjoyed a reduced rate, which was likely the element that led to its success across all countries. Initially, postcards could only be used internally and their production was the prerogative of the single national postal service administrations. Japan adopted the postcard in 1873. After the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1874, which Japan joined three years later, an efficient postal system fitting with the international standards was adopted. Japan abandoned tattooed postmen and grooms wearing loincloth as well as unpaved roads, junks and palanquins.
Like other nations, in 1900 Japan liberalised the production of picture postcards, which bore postage and space for a message on their verso, the side with the image, while the address was written on the recto. The liberalisation of postcard production brought about their exponential growth and a growing search for polished and refined images to illustrate them.
In 1907 the British Postal Service adopted the divided back postcard, whose recto was divided by a vertical line sectioning the space at 2/3: the larger section was meant for postage and address, while the smaller one was meant for the message. In this way an entire side was now dedicated to the illustration, and was soon adopted by many other countries. The concurrent development of printing techniques also contributed to the realisation of little masterpieces in the postcard format.
Some of the subjects of Japanese postcards maintain their own signature characteristics, although they may be picked up in picture postcards issued elsewhere in the world.
The postcard series are conceived as polyptychs to be visually read in the Japanese way, from right to left; they recall the great events of local history, depicted as painted Japanese hand scrolls (emakimono).
Disasters and accidents, in particular the earthquakes Japan is unfortunately famous for, became events to be immortalized and remembered through postcards. In fact, according to the cyclical view of history proper of the East, the present becomes past and can reoccur in the future. Although mostly designed to portray the effects
of natural disasters, postcards often play with the dual representation of the «before» and «after». The drama is emphasized, as is the case for the red flames between the rubble caused by earthquakes which are a free interpretation of the original scene by the printer.
Equally, contemporary political and military events are seen as part of the history that was ongoing. The happenings of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905 were overall the most depicted on the postcards of the time – and not only on Japanese ones. These events were often represented in a satirical manner, with Japan personified by a little soldier that fights (and wins) against the mighty Russian power. Similarly, Japan’s progressively more aggressive policy of conquest in East Asia becomes a part of history and is thus celebrated on pictures postcards.
Another reference to the flow of time, as well as to the local tradition of sending New Year’s greeting cards, is embodied by nenga-ehagaki, the calendar-postcards, taken up the polychrome woodblock-printing technique.
A Japonised genre is that of erotic postcards, which were widespread in the West at the beginning of the century; these images substituted explicitly erotic woodblock prints (shunga), which had been popular in Japan from the 16th century. Since shunga were heavily censored during those years, erotic postcards, in which half-nakedness was «justifiable» by the will to showcase local customs, became the only permitted substitutes.
The various materials and techniques employed in Japan for the realisation of picture postcards created a veritable commixture between local elements and Western styles.
Lacquer (urushi) was one of the traditional materials most used to ennoble picture postcards, embellishing details or creating entire images realised with a Western taste. Lcquer is a transparent sap produced by a shrub. After a lengthy process, it becomes a shiny liquid with a dark colour that can be applied with a brush. As it is a sticky material, lacquer could be mixed with pigments or gold powder.
Next to those decorated with traditional materials such as lacquer, there are also picture postcards made with oil paints, a prestigious material from Western painting tradition. The Eastern landscapes in oil-painted postcards conform stylistically to Western taste, as if they were small paintings hanging in a salon of the bourgeoisie of the early 20th century.
Other postcards were made with chirimen, hand-crinkled crepe paper, which was then printed with the traditional polychrome woodblock-printing technique. In the meanwhile from the West came the modern means of photographic reproduction, which facilitated the production of postcards with photographic images on wood.
Picture postcards in between graphic design and photography, especially those playing with elements of both, showcase a greater interaction of different styles, as well as experimental freedom than their contemporary counterparts issued in the West. Photomontages, decoupage, collage, graphic elements together with
photographic ones, hand-crafting, paper embossing, gauffrage, and the use of different materials such as lacquer or mica make Japanese postcards into small artworks, the result of a refined artistry that has no equal in the world.
Also linguistic and political experimentation took place in some postcards written in Esperanto. Thus, postcards really become the expression of a changing world, in which aesthetic and communication languages become more and more interconnected.