March 31, 2009

East Meets West, Past Meets Present

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When considering artwork from Japan, one often thinks of the traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints that made their way to Europe to inspire the Impressionists. After Hiroshige: A Century of Modern Japanese Prints demonstrates the growing influence in the other direction during the twentieth century — that of West on East. This exhibition at the Johnson Museum emphasizes the push during the Meiji period in Japan for modernization and industrialization, a move reflected in the shin hanga (new prints) and sosaku hanga (creative prints) that became popular during this time. With this new modernization, artists reflected a nostalgia for the past, as well as the growing influence of the West.
The show demonstrates these concepts through several side-by-side comparisons to highlight the different methods in which artists expressed their nostalgia. Beginning with two different views of a scene in Meguro, the shift is visible from the traditional to the modern. The first print, done in 1857 by the Utagawa Hiroshige, shows a hillside in Meguro and the landscape off in the distance, punctuated by a teahouse that is nestled off to the right. The adjacent print [seen at right], created in 1883 by Kobayishi Kiyochika, shows an entirely new view of the same spot — now dominated by a powder magazine rather than a teahouse. Both reflect the state of Japan’s politics and economy at the time — one demonstrating the visit of the shogun Iemitsu to an elderly couple’s teahouse, and the other showing what has replaced the teahouse during Japan’s metamorphosis.
The next comparison illustrates a formal technique that changed with Japan’s innovation. With such technologies as photography available to artists, experiments with light became prevalent — an eastern reflection of the same issues that Impressionists found themselves dealing with at the same time. Another print by Kiyochika displays his fondness for sharply outlined shadows and figures, while Kawase Hasui goes to the other end of the spectrum — his print, Kozu Shrine, Osaka is blurry, foggy and glowing. Centered between them is the happy compromise, a print by Yoshida Toshi of Tokyo with sharply lined buildings but soft light on the water. Not only do these experiments reflect innovations in photography, but the new conversation between Europe and Japan at the time.
As the show moves on around the gallery, there is a clear progression from traditional to modern-as-traditional to modern. Along the way, Tokushi Katsuhira’s print Two Women Making Rope illustrates a traditional occupation lost to the machinery of industrialization under the new order. Katsuhira’s print is particularly personal because his family’s papermaking trade was closed down by factories that could do their job and do it faster. Katsuhira not only makes reference to these old professions, but preserves their spirit through his process — rather than passing off the printing to another person as was the tradition in woodblock printing, he completed all of the tasks himself. This move away from collective artisanship toward a singular artist is another point highly emphasized in the exhibition.
The exhibition culminates in far more abstract pieces, the most striking of which is Crane by Tadashi Nakayama, done in 1958. This highly abstracted image of a crane, which seems to be made up of the licks of a flame, stands in sharp contrast to the images of Meguro that stand opposite it. This work is included as a typical sosaku hanga, where the artist, like Katsuhira, accomplishes all of the tasks of making a woodblock print himself.
After Hiroshige: A Century of Modern Japanese Prints demonstrates the attempts of these artists to highlight those qualities of art that they believed to be inherently Japanese, while embracing modern art styles that came from the new dialogue with the West. The all-encompassing effect of Japan’s new national policies during this time period permeates every single one of these pieces, expressing the feelings of the populace in reaction to the harsh realities of industrialization.

After Hirosighe runs until July 26.