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ART OF THE JAPANESE POSTCARD, essays by Anne Nishimura Morse, J. Thomas Rimer and Kendall H. Brown, foreword by Malcolm Rogers, preface by Leonard A. Lauder, printing notes by Joan Wright, biographies by Tomoko Okamura. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, MFA Publications, 2004, 288 pp., 300 color illustrations, $29.95 (paper).

Postcards are commonly perceived as the most quotidian form of communication. Everyday, ordinary, indicative of leisure, their messages usually restricted to commonplaces, they seem to deny the imperatives of celerity and dispatch. And therein lies their charm.

If they are useless as transmission, something they usually do not even attempt, they are useful in indicating an indulgent remembrance, a mild concern, and wishes that you too were here. Wherever that is occupies the front of the card — a scene, a view.

Postcards, however, increasingly have further uses. One of them is indicated by Leonard A. Lauder whose collection fills both this catalog and, at present, the Tokyo Communication Museum. He sees them, he says in his preface, as art — “a fine print or, indeed, a water color.”

This is because the postcards he refers to are Japanese and there was a remarkable period between the close of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries when Japan issued some of the most memorable postcards ever published.

The Japanese postcard was originally encouraged by a campaign for modernization that overcame the country from around 1870 onward. The results of such sudden administration needs resulted in the overworked government agreeing to relinquish control over the popular cards after 1900.

Now privatized, the e-hagaki, as they were called, could flourish. The Russo-Japanese war and the resultant popularity of all war-themed goods boosted postcards into best-selling items. This in turn meant that more money could be spent on their production (they were often lithographed and usually hand colored), and a number of famous artists were attracted to design them.

This had already occurred in Vienna where Egon Schiele, Emile Nolde and Oskar Kokoshka, among others, had designed postcards. In Japan, such artists’ equals were attracted — Hashimoto Gaho, Kuroda Seiki, Chu Asai and (as J. Thomas Rimer tells us in his charming essay) even such talented amateurs such as the novelist Natsume Soseki.

The sending of postcards was enormously popular in Japan at the turn of the century and the habit still continues. New Year’s cards remain imperative and it is the rare Japanese who sends none. Indeed, many people take pains to design theirs themselves.

But the days of the universally ubiquitous postcard are over. Later means of keeping in touch — phone, fax, e-mail — have no equivalent. And as electronic means become even more common, the need for postcards, eventually letters and, finally, the postal system itself will diminish.

Soon, whatever mail delivery still exists will be mainly for goods. Like the railways, which now in such countries as the United States carry more property than people, the mail will be used to deliver your stuff from whomever you buy from on the Internet.

When this occurs, the art of the postcard will be finished, and the leftover postcard will rise in value. Already certain issues of postage stamps have become collectibles, and Lauder apparently spent a lot of money in gathering together this extraordinary collection.

It is all here in this very fine catalog, which comes with notes, biographies, examples of the artists’ seals and brilliant reproductions of some 300 cards — one facet reflecting a vanishing world.

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