Rediscovered Japanese Stencils

In cooperation with the URPP Asia and Europe, the Instiute of Art History's Section for East Asian Art (KGOA) planned a major international symposium, “Katagami in the West” (March 18–20, 2016), on the Japanese textile stencil, or katagami. Organized by Hans Bjarne Thomsen and Natasha Fischer-Vaidya, this event marked the first international symposium on the subject anywhere in the West and brought together over thirty major scholars in the field, including a number from Japan. The symposium was held over the course of three days, with two full days of presentations at the University of Zurich and a third day of excursions to two major Swiss centers of katagami collections: St Gallen and Aarau.

Hans Bjarne Thomsen

Japanese woodblock prints have rightly been considered one of the prime influences of Western art during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prints such as Hokusai’s Great Wave have been endlessly discussed as one of the sources of Western modern art movements, such as Impressionism. Upon reading the popular books and academic scholarship on artists of the period such as Van Gogh, one is likely to read extensively about the influence of Japanese art through its woodblock prints.

There was, however, another important Japanese source of inspiration during this time. This was the medium of the Japanese fabric stencil katagami, which arrived in the West in strikingly large numbers, reaching into the hundreds of thousands. These objects came to dominate the storage areas of museums and collectors in terms of sheer numbers and were eagerly studied in the classrooms of schools of applied arts. In time, they became integral parts of educating art and design students and noted artists such as Gustav Klimt received a number of designs from Japanese stencils. In time, movements such as Japonisme and Jugendstil came to owe significant debts to textile designs imbedded into the katagami.

Importantly, the stencils were seen in the country of origin as mere tools for the creation of textiles, but when exported to the West, they were seen as works of art and sources of design. Many were framed and exhibited in homes and legends were created about them, such as the tall tale that the hair of geisha was used in the creation of the stencils. Western textile producers were, in fact, unable to use the katagami to reproduce Japanese textile production and the katagami kept their role as key sources of Japanese design.

A surprising neglect

The Zurich symposium aimed to study the neglected phenomenon of the katagami and their reception by artists and the public. It also aimed to understand the reasons for their neglect, in spite of the great influence and popularity it enjoyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a neglect that is particularly surprising in terms of their great numbers in Western collections. Only now, scholars are becoming aware of the objects, through exhibitions and discoveries such as the recent exhibition in Dresden, Logical Rain, that highlighted a long-lost and forgotten collection of over 15,000 sheets.

In Switzerland, too, the stencils are present in many museums across the country, including but not limited to 500 sheets in St Gallen; 600 in Basel; 1500 in Bern; 10,000 in Aarau. New collections are being discovered on a regular basis. In fact, almost no Western museum, especially those of arts and crafts, is without at least a few of the katagami sheets, including the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. There are especially numerous examples in local textile centers such as Lyon and Mulhouse.

Increasing research interest

The katagami have been neglected for almost a century, and there is a clear need for a comprehensive survey and understanding of these pieces, not least in terms of their collection histories and their roles in Western art education and design. The symposium marked the first international conference on the katagami in the west and marked the beginning of a wave of new research on the topic in bringing resources, research methods, and knowledge of collections together in a meaningful way. After the symposium in Zurich, a number of new projects have started across the world, in the East as well as the West, and exhibitions have started to spring up on the basis of forgotten collections, as the sheets are brought out from corners of museum archives by the new knowledge of the stencils’ importance.

The KGOA has also been involved in this research for a number of years through surveys of Swiss collections. In 2014, two exhibitions featuring katagami were created as a result of collaboration between the KGOA and Swiss museums in St Gallen (namely, the Textile Museum and the Historical and Ethnographic Museum). Jeanne Fichtner, a PhD student at the URPP and the KGOA, curated the latter exhibition and presented her findings at the symposium. In addition, an important research and conservation project was just concluded on the significant katagami in the collection of the Historical Museum of Bern. Laura Palicova, a MA student from the KGOA who participated in the Bern project, also presented at the symposium. Another KGOA student, Alessandra Lardelli, presented her discovery of a collection of bingata katagami, stencils created for the bingata textiles of the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) in the collection of Museum der Kulturen in Basel, which then became the subject of her MA thesis. It also was the subject of a KGOA class in August 2017, featuring Professor Yoshikuni Yanagi of the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts, also a member of the Zurich symposium. A number of KGOA students remain involved in katagami-related projects, and a major publication is being planned, featuring essays for the leading scholars on the stencils, from both Japan and the West.

The KGOA’s katagami project aims to foster interest in young scholars and curators from across Europe and from Japan, who are starting to study these objects. We hope to show that, although Japanese woodblock prints are often given sole credit for the reception of Japanese art in the West, the katagami at a time held equally important roles as transmitters of Japanese art and design. The KGOA hopes to resurrect the roles, the reception, and the history of these objects through events such as the Zurich symposium.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 19–20)