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110-yr-old reproductions of Swedish explorer's sketches found at Kyoto University

A detailed reproduction of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery indistinguishable from the original Hedin sketch by Junji Nishikawa. (Image courtesy of Kyoto University)

KYOTO -- Sixty detailed copies of sketches by Swedish Silk Road explorer and topographer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) have been discovered more than 100 years after he spent time here, it has been learned.

Hedin came to the former Kyoto Imperial University in 1908 as a visiting scholar following his third expedition of Central Asia. The copies of the sketches were discovered in Kyoto University's geography department of the Division of Behavioral Studies.

While Hedin is thought to have sketched some 4,000 to 5,000 works of his expeditions over his lifetime, this is the first time such a large number of copies have been found in one location. Among them include copies for which the original sketches by the world-renowned explorer have been lost, proving to be an important discovery in the field.

In 2014, specialist in urban geography and spatial analysis at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Letters, professor Kazuko Tanaka, was organizing the documents stored at the geography department. From one cabinet, she pulled two envelopes labeled in black ink, "Central Asia / topography and manners and customs / copies." When she opened the discolored envelopes, it was stuffed carelessly with sketches and watercolors depicting scenes of temples, landscapes and people in foreign lands. On the sketches were four signatures including those of a Junji Nishikawa and Zennosuke Tanaka.

Even when Tanaka asked retired faculty about the sketches, no one seemed to know their origin. Still, motivated by the lively beauty of the works, Tanaka began a full-scale investigation, calling upon scholars from fields beyond geography as well.

A copy of a sketch of a young militia boy with a gun slung over his shoulder, the original of which has been lost. (Image courtesy of Kyoto University)

"I remember seeing the picture of a member of a militia riding a yak (a Tibetan cow) in one of Hedin's books," came a clue from Kyoto University Institute for Research in Humanities professor Takumi Ikeda, whose area of research is Sino-Tibetan dialectology. Following the lead, Tanaka found that the sketches were a match to the illustrations included in the 1909-1910 volumes of Hedin's "Trans-Himalaya: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet" and other works.

She also discovered that the signatures belonged to students of the inaugural and second class of the Kansai Bijutsuin art school, who after their studies there, went on to become exceptional artists influential in leading the Kyoto oil painting world.

Upon investigation in November 2015 at the Museum of Ethnography in Hedin's native Sweden, 49 of the 60 copies were successfully matched with originals. The remaining 11 original works had been lost. The copies matched right down to the size of the originals, and it became clear that they had been drawn directly from the originals.

Hedin spent roughly one month in Japan, even having an audience with Emperor Meiji in Tokyo. In Kyoto, he met with Japanese geologist and geographer Takuji Ogawa -- the father of Nobel-winning physicist Hideki Yukawa -- and historian Konan Naito. Along with lectures held in Kyoto, 108 of Hedin's original paintings were put on display. It is believed that the copies were drawn during the few days of the exhibition.

According to professor Tanaka, Ogawa, who was well versed in Chinese classics, translated the Qing Dynasty work "Shuidao tigang," which describes the flow of the rivers in the regions where Hedin visited, into English. His translations were then reportedly quoted by Hedin in his expedition records and other works.

Sven Hedin (Photo courtesy of the Sven Hedin Foundation)

"When he was in Tokyo, Hedin mainly met members of the Imperial Household, financial conglomerates, the military and the government, but in Kyoto, he had many interactions with scholars in the humanities," says Tanaka. "It is indeed typical of Kyoto for scholars, artists and others spanning a variety of fields to have worked together back then."

A 278-page written report edited by Tanaka comparing the copies to the original works and following a survey in Tibet, "Tankenka Hedin to Kyoto Daigaku: Nokosareta 60-mai no mosha ga kataru mono" (Explorer Hedin and Kyoto University: The tale of 60 remaining sketch reproductions), was published by Kyoto University Press this April.

(Japanese original by Masaharu Sakakibara, Osaka Editorial Division)

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