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Exhibition at the Fundació Joan Miró explores the works of painter Itō Shinsui
Itō Shinsui, Blackening the eyebrows, 1928. Woodblock prints, with ink and pigments on paper © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018.

BARCELONA.- Itō Shinsui. Tration and Modernity focuses on the print work of Itō Shinsui (1898-1972), who is generally known as one of the most prominent nihonga (literally, ‘Japanese painting’) artists and one of the most significant proponents of shin hanga (‘new prints’), a movement that developed in Japan in the twentieth century. Shinsui achieved fame and commercial success, primarily with his depictions of women embodying the traditional Japanese ideal of beauty.

The Tension between Tradition and Modernity in Turn-of-the-Century Japan
With the restoration of the imperial rule in 1868, Japan underwent a transformation from a feudal society in the Edo period to a modern nation state under the ‘enlightened rule’ of Emperor Meiji. In an effort to achieve parity with industrialised nations in the West, numerous reforms were enacted that brought about drastic changes in social, economic and political spheres.

The arts were not immune to these changes. European painters and sculptors were invited to Japan to teach at the newly established art schools, while Japanese artists could travel abroad to study the new trends in Western art. However, this modernisation process was not without its downsides. Traditional workshops lost their patrons from the samurai ruling class. New technologies imported from the West threatened to render traditional crafts obsolete and the traditional woodblock print faced increasingly fierce competition from modern reprographic techniques such as photography and lithography.

For all these reasons, at the end of the nineteenth century, the ukiyo-e industry was in decline. Those ‘pictures from a floating world,’ inhabited by courtesans, samurais, geishas and Japanese kabuki actors, was no longer of interest to the Japanese urban population, which had embraced Western customs. Paradoxically, as a consequence of Japan opening up to the world, there was also a marked increase in the demand for woodblock prints by Edo period masters such as Harunobu, Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige on foreign markets. From the 1860s onwards, original prints were exported in great numbers to Europe and America, where they had a profound impact on movements such as Impressionism and Art Nouveau.

This appreciation of traditional Japanese printmaking in the West – both in terms of its subject matter and of its materials and techniques – resulted in a reevaluation of this medium in Japan at a time when the country was in the process of reconsidering its identity. In the late 1880s, after a period of rapid and intense modernisation and Westernisation, Japanese intellectuals and senior officials began to question the uncritical reception of Western values. Within this search for a cultural identity, the Edo period – deemed a backward and underdeveloped until then – was promoted as the ‘repository of Japanese culture’.

The trend of returning to native values also affected the visual arts. In 1890, nihonga (‘Japanese-style painting’) was established as a ‘national’ painting style as opposed to yōga, or ‘Western style painting’. The division between a westerninfluenced and a native style can also be found in printmaking, represented by the avant-garde movement sōsaku hanga (‘creative prints’) and the revival movement shin hanga (‘new prints,’ heirs to the ukiyo-e tradition) respectively. Spurred by the initiative of the art dealer and publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885-1962) and led by the master painter Itō Shinsui, a group of artists succeeded in preserving a space for traditional printmaking in the context of the new times, endowing it with a new sensibility.

Shin Hanga or the New Old Prints
Shin hanga took shape in 1915, launched by the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, who had started his career as an antique dealer specialising in the export and reproduction of Edo period prints, in an attempt to revitalize the traditional Japanese woodblock industry. The movement prospered between 1915 and the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1942, briefly flourishing again between 1946 and the early 1960s. Both in terms of their production methods – involving a division of labour between the artist, the block carver, the printer and the publisher – and of their subject matter, these ‘new prints’ referenced the visual vocabulary of ukiyo-e and the Edo period, updating it with contemporary fashion and aesthetics.

Originally produced for a foreign (primarily American) market, shin hanga offered an idealised, romantic view of pre-industrial Japan; however, the new prints also enjoyed great popularity at home. Traditional depictions of beautiful women (bijinga), idyllic landscapes (fūkeiga) and handsome kabuki actors (yakusha-e) found resonance among the Japanese public, who yearned for rural landscapes and traditional values at a time of rapid changes throughout the country. Although the value of nostalgia of the past and their aestheticism has been questioned at times, shin hanga prints continue to be highly relevant today both for their technical accomplishment and for their significance as the product and the record of an era in which Japanese society was searching for its own cultural identity,

Itō Shinsui, an Artist of His Time
Itō Shinsui, born in Tokyo in 1898, grew up in this period of intense transformations. Unlike many Japanese artists who studied following modern methods at schools founded after the model of Western art academies, Shinsui was trained in the master-disciple tradition. At the age of thirteen, he was accepted as a student by Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1972), one of the most respected painters of his time. From the age of fifteen to seventeen, Shinsui proved to be somewhat of a prodigy, and was invited to exhibit in group shows organised by the Japanese Ministry of Education and by artists’ associations, receiving several honours and awards. In 1915, the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō happened to see one of Shinsui’s female portraits in a group show. Intrigued by the work, Watanabe sought Kiyokata’s approval to approach the young artist, with the request to turn the painting into a print design. Before the Mirror, published the following year, marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that lasted over 40 years.

Shinsui’s debut print had programmatic character for his very prolific career as a shin hanga artist. Over two-thirds of his print oeuvre consists of ‘depictions of beautiful women,’ whose trademarks are technical perfection, clear composition and hauntingly elegant expression, highly imbued with the spirit of its times. In keeping with the bijinga tradition, women are shown through the eyes of an unseen male viewer and depicted in a domestic environment, tending to typical female occupations. In addition, most of them are dressed and coiffed in a traditional Japanese manner. At a time when Japanese women were dressing according to Western fashion and their social roles were shifting in the wake of a profound modernisation, Shinsui’s demure beauties were the perfect embodiment of traditional Japanese femininity, which mass media and literature were actively promoting.

The success of Shinsui’s bijinga almost overshadowed his strikingly original landscape prints, of great artistic value. Executed with expressive colours and uncoventional compositions, they exude an intensity and creative power that are on a par with the works of the avant-garde sōsaku hanga artists. Shinsui advocated that the representation of landscapes had to be based on personal observation and not on the image established in classical literature. Aside from his depictions of Mount Fuji – the omnipresent national icon in the works of artists of all schools and styles – Shinsui portrayed almost no ‘famous sites’, instead choosing landscapes with which he felt a personal connection, in an approach more akin to the principles of Western art than to traditional East Asian conventions. In fact, the colour scheme and the treatment of light bear a stronger affinity to the works of Impressionist artists than to ukiyo-e.

Towards the end of his life, Shinsui ventured beyond the conventions of bijinga using modern means of expression to capture both the personality of the sitter and the pulse of contemporary everyday life. The most remarkable improvement in Shinsui’s postwar paintings can be seen in his portraits, both of individuals and of groups. The artist’s rendition of his master Kiyokata, painted in 1951, is now considered as one of the most representative works of modern Japanese portraiture. This trajectory earned him great popularity during his lifetime. In 1952, Shinsui was granted the title of Bearer of Intangible Cultural Assets, and in 1970 he received the Order of the Rising Sun. He died in 1972 at the age of 74, only two months after his master. Up until the end of his life, his motivation and creativity never flagged, nor did his efforts to innovate from tradition.

Itō Shinsui. Tradition and Modernity
Curated by Akiko Katsuta, Itō Shinsui. Tradition and Modernity presents a selection of more than fifty of the best woodblock prints by Itō Shinsui from his family’s collection belonging to the Taiyo no Hikari Foundation. Produced from 1916 to 1964, the prints span the entire career of the renowned master of shin hanga and bear witness to the two main areas in his output: traditional portraits of women (bijinga) and idyllic landscapes (fūkeiga).

Some of the most salient pieces in the exhibition are:

• Shinsui’s debut print Before the Mirror, still considered one of his best and most popular works.

• The selection also includes Blackening the Eyebrows (1928), a portrait of the actress Kawada Toshiko behind the scenes, the first of this type in modern Japanese art.

• Kabuki Dance ‘Kagamijishi’ (1950) is another one of the relevant pieces in the exhibition: the portrait of a kabuki actor in a female role, based on a painting from 1923 chosen for the exhibition at the Imperial Art Academy.

• Last of all, the exhibition also features Shinsui’s iconic Hair (1952), commissioned by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Science to commemmorate the artist’s appointment as Bearer of Intangible Cultural Assets.

To further explore the virtuosity of the techniques and procedures used in designing the images and producing the prints, the center of the exhibition space features the series of sketches for Gifu-Style Paper Lantern (1930), another series showing the 38 stages involved in the process for printing Hair (1952), and a full set of woodblock carving tools.

The Octagonal Room at the Fundació Joan Miró houses the work of this great Japanese painer and master of shin hanga, whose artistic approach highlights the relationship between Joan Miró’s work and Japanese art and thought. The serene observation of objects, a deep connection with nature, the poetry of the essential or the quest for new perspectives capable of reaching beyond tradition are some of the common elements between the two artists. In addition, Miró’s admiration of Japanese woodblock printing techniques led him to apply them often in his own printmaking. In an effort to underscore these links, the exhibition is completed with Miró’s Portrait of Enric Cristòfol Ricart (1917), on loan from MoMA, one of the first manifestations of his fascination with East Asia. Miró used an Edo-style print as a collage to achieve a sense of depth and break away from the monochrome background, signing the piece at the bottom in a vertical rectangle, with a signature that looks like one of the seals that Japanese artists used to identify their works.

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