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Ehon: The Artist And the Book in Japan, by Roger S. Keyes, foreword by Paul LeClerc. The New York Public Library in association with the University of Washington Press, 2006, 320 pp., 250 color illustrations, $50 (cloth)

“Ehon” means “picture book,” that is, a volume comprising pictures along with some text, or the text of a book with some illustrations. Hokusai’s “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji” is a picture book composed mainly of prints, but so is the first printed edition of the “Tales of Ise,” which has some illustrations amid the text.

The idea of the two arts (writing and drawing) coming together is not unique to Japan, but it probably has a longer history here. The first Japanese printed book, a Buddhist text, was published in the 8th century, and though it had no pictures, it was printed in an edition of 1 million copies. Later editions had illustrations.

One of the outcomes of Japan’s early combination of text and pictures was the idea that a new experience was being created by two artists working together. The poet Akera Kanko once set out with a group of friends to collect shells along the Shinagawa beach. Everyone then wrote poems about what was found. When the text was to be published (1789), it was decided that illustrations were needed and Kitagawa Utamaro was commissioned to create these. The result is a very beautiful ehon with both text and picture on the same page — a famous poet and a famous artist had contrived a new experience for the reader.

Europe has had its own ehon for centuries. Sandro Botticelli illustrated Dante, Lucas Cranach illuminated the Bible. Later the European tradition also made much of bringing writer and artist together. Among the earliest (1875) was a Paris edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” translated by Stephane Mallarme, with lithographs by Eduoard Manet.

Some of the most beautiful (and expensive) have been combinations such as Pablo Picasso’s edition of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” Aristide Maillol’s suite of pictures for Virgil’s “Ecologues,” and Marc Chagall’s colorful prints for the Longus “Daphnis and Chloe.” At the further edge are Salvador Dali’s illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland,” and the Robert Mapplethorpe photos accompanying Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell.”

The Japanese tradition also made use of international material bridging the centuries. The talented Kawanabe Kyosai did an illustrated edition of Aesop’s “Fables,” and took hints from John Tenniel’s pictures for the same work.

The print artist Onchi Koshiro was also an author and he combined text and pictures in his own manner but also in the manners of the Russian Constructivists and the German Bauhaus artists. And right on down to the graffiti-minded manga of Takashi Murakami.

Much of this Japanese material (from 770 to 2005) has been gathered in this beautifully designed and printed volume, which is also a catalog to an exhibition concluding Feb. 4 at the New York Public Library. Having opened last Oct. 20, it includes all of the publications discussed and illustrated herein. Discussing them is Roger Keyes, a major authority in his field and most recently author of a catalogue raisonne of the prints of Katsushika Hokusai.

In his lucid text he reminds us that John Milton, the poet, wrote that books are not dead things, that they contain life between their covers, that they still hold the “living intellect that bred them.”

This is certainly true of the ehon, whose pages hold the thoughts of both the writer and the artist. And it is true of Keyes’ book as well, since in his collection of examples of his subject he has created a very beautiful ehon himself.

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