"Ideal Specimens": Butterfly Nature Prints, Entomology, and the Decorative Arts in Early 20th Century Japan

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Abstract Summary
This paper examines the materiality and functions of butterfly nature printing, so called lepidochromy, in early 20th-­‐century Japan. This technique complicates the relationship between specimen and image as well as between entomology and the decorative arts, but has to date remained on the margins of scholarly attention. In lepidochromy, the colorful scales that form the patterns of butterfly wings are transferred to paper or other materials, while the insect body is drawn in by hand, producing specimen/illustration hybrids. The Nawa Entomological Institute in Gifu, a small semi-­public institution otherwise focused on research into agricultural pests and other aspects of applied entomology, patented a specific lepidochromy technique and built a workshop to manufacture large numbers of prints. These were used to make books and cards, marketed to researchers and educators as “ideal specimens”, as well as decorative arts such as paper fans, silk kimono belts, or umbrellas. The products, which mainly made use of butterflies collected in colonial Taiwan, were sold in Japan and Europe. The paper will show how the images were seen to serve both epistemic and aesthetic purposes: As an easily mobilized and durable form of specimen, they were produced for research and educational functions in a time of exponentially growing insect collections. As a mass-­‐ producible and yet individualized form of illustration, they also fit the contemporary market’s demand for Japanese decorative arts and authentic representations of nature. Through these activities, the institute also expanded, as the paper argues, its definition of applied entomology.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Chronological Classification :
20th century, early
Self-Designated Keywords :
Entomology, Japan, Decorative Arts, Commerce