Monday, 20 February 2017

Uncovering the secrets of MoDA's katagami collection

Mamiko Markham is one of the participants in MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese stencils in the Art School.  Her research uses both ordinary and infrared photography to examine the katagami stencils in MoDA’s Silver Studio Collection to determine geographical origins, dates and makers.

Here she describes her technique and some of her findings so far. 

The katagami stencils at MoDA date from the late nineteenth century, and were orginaly used for printing kimono fabric.  They are marked with stamps and calligraphic marks which tell us who made them, and where and when.  But these marks are not always visible to the naked eye, which is why infrared photography can help.  But even when we have a clear image of a mark, it requires careful analysis to understand exactly what they mean. 
  
I feel it necessary to draw attention to the difficulties faced in recognizing the stamps and writings on the Katagami.  The Japanese language has three alphabets, Kanji – the ornate script, plus the two phonetic 51 character alphabets, Hirogana and Katagana. Hirogana and Katagana have a number of characters which are similar in appearance, but present no problem when in context in prose; but could be confused in brief markings. The number of Kanji taught in school and required to read most of a newspaper is around two thousand.  A well-read person (such as a professor) may know in excess of five thousand. Unicode fonts contain in excess of 76,000 kanji, many of which are considered obsolete.

marks on one of the katagami stencils in MoDA's collection, revealed by means of infrared photography


Unfortunately a lot of the kanji in the Katagami stamps are now obsolete. This is further compounded by the stylised nature (font) of some of the stamps. All kanji is derived from script described by brush strokes and even when printed in a non brush-like style, the number of “strokes” in a kanji can be counted. The stroke count can be used to help narrow down a kanji search, but at times, it is still necessary to search through several hundred to several thousand kanji.

The calligraphy (hand painted script) is very problematic. Like hand-writing it will be stylised; coupled with not knowing whether one is trying to understand current or obsolete characters. If these obstacles were not enough, deciphering kanji is further complicated due to the “readings”.  Almost all Kanji have many different ways of being pronounced. My name for example, having three syllables ma-mi-ko, has more than 52 different ways of being written!



Mamiko will tell us more about what she has discovered from her research in a later blogpost.