In his book for aspiring oil painters, Yamamoto Kanae, an oil painter himself, provided the following advice:
Another method to study painting is to see as many paintings as possible. I suggest going to exhibitions or, if one has an invitation, visiting ateliers of acquainted painters or those who live in the neighborhood. Above all, to work in oil painting, one has to see a lot of pictures by noted western artists. However, unless one travels to the West, it is impossible to see the original artworks. For this reason I advise to collect many photographic reproductions of famous works. Yamamoto Kanae, Aburae no egakikata (Yamamoto 1919, 38).
Writing in 1919, Yamamoto Kanae emphasizes the importance of perusing photographic reproductions at a time when access to original works (in this case oil paintings produced in the West) was limited.
Similarly, an observer writing for the Taiwan nichinichi shinpō in November 1930 advised artists in the tōyōga division of the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition to study old paintings in private collections and by using the library. He pointed out that the Taipei library had the full run of the prestigious journal Kokka (Flowers of the Nation), twenty-volume set of Shinbi taikan (Selected Relics of Japanese Art), and many other books with reproductions (gashū) of works from various painting schools (Hekiteishujin 1930). Both Kokka and Shinbi taikan featured large size reproductions in highest print quality.
Another important medium that provided reproductions were art postcards. Sold at major art exhibitions, they enjoyed great popularity throughout the 1920s and 1930s with exhibition visitors and aspiring artists. In contrast to primarily black and white reproductions in art journals, the art postcards from major exhibitions in Japan at the time were printed in color, which greatly contributed to their appeal. Art postcards turned artworks into small, uniform, inexpensive, yet visually pleasant collectibles. They were easily transportable and allowed anyone to assemble a small “art collection.” Painter and exhibition juror Okada Saburōsuke (1869-1939) stated that since there was no permanent museum for modern art in Tokyo and art exhibitions were "temporary just like music," only art postcards would help one to recall the artworks they had earlier seen in an exhibition (“Jōsetsu bijutsukan no mondai” 1933, 6). Also, artists used art postcards to promote their own work and exchange with their colleagues (Kolodziej 2020).
Many artists collected art postcards and made scrapbooks with reproductions of artworks. Today, some of the most well known extant examples of such collections belong to a Korean watercolor and oil artist Yi Insŏng (1912-1950) and two Taiwanese-Chinese oil painters, Chen Chengbo (1895-1947) and Chen Zhiqi (1906-1931). Yi Insŏng's art postcard collection was on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art as part of "The Centennial Celebration of Lee In-Sung's Birth" exhibition in 2012. You can see a few art postcards from Chen Chengbo's collection on this page. To view the whole collection visit the Chen Cheng-po Cultural Foundation's website.
The growing availability and access to reproductions helped foster a shared knowledge of a vast set of images in Japan and across its empire. Yet, if the printing technology democratized access to art, the publishing industry retained a selective focus on art considered worthy of reproduction, highlighting contemporary art on display at major art exhibitions in Japan, masterpieces of Western art, and Japanese scholarship on the great works from the East Asian past.
To learn more more generally about postcards in Japan, visit the Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the MFA Boston and the East Asia Image Collection at Lafayette University.