The Walls Have Eyes…or do they? Interning at Hillman Library’s Special Collections Department

Clay Image

Kiyoshi Saitō: Clay Image, c. 1952 (detail)


The Walls Have Eyes…or do they? Interning at Hillman Library’s Special Collections Department

Museum Studies Intern at the University Library System (Hillman Library’s Special Collections) - Spring 2018

In my adventures as an intern in Hillman Library’s Special Collections Department this spring of 2018, I’ve been taking inventory of the many oversized prints of the Walter and Martha Leuba collection. The thousands of prints in this collection are as varied as the origins of the artists who created them, spanning continents and centuries, but this collection is not yet available for patrons to browse. I am helping in the eventual digitizing of this content, which is now housed in various boxes and portfolios; the end goal is the creation of a searchable online catalogue. My personal interest lies in the prints by Japanese artists, which I devoted time to researching to improve upon existing database information. Most of these Japanese works were woodblock prints produced in the mid-twentieth century. This work pictured above, however, titled Clay Image, shows that woodblock printing isn’t a strictly old-fashioned medium; although it’s associated almost exclusively with ancient to 19th century East Asia, woodblock printmaking has continued into the present day.

From a distance, this piece by Kiyoshi Saitō (1907-1997) looks like an abstract representation of people, but having looked through other instances of his work in Special Collections, I noticed this would not fit with Saitō’s style of Japanese traditional objects and landscapes rendered with a modern twist. I was perplexed as to why this piece was titled Clay Image, and initially decided that perhaps it was a two-dimensional representation of sculpture. When I came back to the print and looked closer, I realized that I had seen something like these “people” before. Suddenly I saw that these were not meant to be abstract people, but rather haniwa, which I had encountered in an Intro to Asian Art class a year ago here at Pitt. Haniwa means “clay circle” in Japanese, and as the name suggests, these objects are hollow figures made from terracotta clay buried in gravesites in Japan during the Yamato period, which was around the 3rd to 8th century C.E. These figures are thought to have served as a surrogate for live guardians to scare away malevolent spirits and tomb raiders. Haniwa are often very intricate and can take forms of warriors and priestesses as well as animals, such as horses.

Saitō’s representation of haniwa contrasts strikingly with the landscapes that make up much of his body of work housed in Special Collections, and had there not been Japanese characters written onto the print, I may have almost mistaken this for a representation of African sculpture. It’s interesting and unusual to see such ancient objects as haniwa depicted over a millennium later, but with a printmaking technique that is reminiscent of a bygone era. Clay Image embodies a connection between the past and present that encapsulates Japanese culture in a way accessible to anyone from a modern audience who is informed in ancient history, to the student (such as myself) with an interest in Japanese art, as well as casual museum-goers, who would no doubt enjoy seeing this print on the wall of a museum or even decorating a home.

This just goes to show that there is always something to take away from an introductory class—I never dreamed I would see haniwa again, let alone in a modern representation such as Clay Image. Haniwa were meant to act as guardians for the dead, but would you want these eyeless faces watching over you in your everyday life? These printed haniwa have been sitting in a drawer for so long that they would probably jump at the opportunity.

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