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Explicit Characters: Putting Asian Art Online

  street scene

What do Japanese accent marks and opportunistic online pornographers have to do with each other, and with the Art Institute of Chicago's rich collection of pre-20th-century Asian art? While raucous behavior (including at least one eye-catching display of bodily function) lurks within the two Chinese painted hand scrolls and one Japanese woodblock printed book that are now available online, nothing truly untoward seems to be happening on the surface.


These three artworks (above and immediately below) reflect an interest in everyday public life—whether in a 14th-century painted scroll of a bustling street, a book of playful woodblock prints of common people going about their business c. 1800 (that was meant for artists to copy), or an important, 13th-century painting of a scholar moving with his family to a new city (viewable in extreme, zooming detail). All of these artworks benefit from the animated movement of the Art Institute’s Turning the Pages™, a roster now thirty fascinating objects strong.

handscroll Yang Pu

For the first time on our website however, the movement goes from right to left. For the street scene (the top image) in particular, the scrolling motion creates the illusion of actual movement down a real street, whether the figures are parading by, or the viewer strolls along. Take your time to amble through these scenes; recognizable character types from pious to provocative abound, and not everyone is what they may seem, whether beggars, astrologers, or nobles.

While the two scrolls were relatively easy to prepare for the web by splicing together a very long image from photographs, the accompanying text for the street scene mainly consisted of collector's seals and commentaries about the image dating over several centuries. Yang Pu may well have included such texts, but lost them during remounting. The book below proved more difficult to describe for an English-speaking audience, as it has a lengthy preface, requiring a good bit of research and technical fiddling from intrepid interns Mai Yamaguchi (Asian Art) and Liana Jegers (Prints and Drawings/Turning the Pages). The transcribed Japanese characters have appeared as question marks or empty boxes in the explanatory captions in a rather capricious manner.

Turning the Pages

So if you made it this far, you might be wondering where the opportunistic pornographers mentioned above come in. Well, consultations with our programmers in London have already resulted in the successful implementation of the needed diacritical mark, a macron, above the ō in the artist, Bumpō's Romanized name, but consistency failed us once again on our home turf! A technical difficulty resulted in our website being unable to properly display any sort of mark of this sort for fear that it might be html code with nefarious intent! We link to our Turning the Pages™ books through our "My Collections" interface, which allows any viewer to assemble illustrated lists of their favorite Art Institute artworks from the museum database, and then type in comments on their choices. In the past, entirely inadvertently, users gained permission to include any type of formatting in the comments section, including live image and page links. These could be viewed by anyone, and were no longer restricted to referring to artworks owned or sanctioned by the museum. In fact, at least one enterprising individual took this to mean the Art Institute was offering free advertising space for their porn site. It wasn't pretty. A few missing macrons are a small price to pay for the museum's digital dignity.

Click below for access to any of the newest Turning the Pages resources:

Bumpo Sketches Book

Street Scene Handscroll

Yang Pu Handscroll