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Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864–1901, Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret, 1892, color lithograph, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund P.13,19

MINNEAPOLIS, MN.- The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is home to one of the world’s great collections of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) prints. The museum’s new exhibition, “Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints,” running through January 8, 2012, features more than 160 masterworks that reveal the great breadth of ukiyo-e production as well as the individual artistry of about 40 artists. Organized thematically, the exhibition provides a kaleidoscopic view of popular culture in pre-modern Japan.

“Pop Art” usually describes the artistic movement of the 1950s, when artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein gleaned inspiration from contemporary urban life, mass-produced consumer products, and slick advertising. Picturing film stars and comic-book heroes in bright colors and crisp forms, Pop Art referred largely to the popular culture from which the movement emerged.

“Pop” also aptly describes ukiyo-e produced in Japan during the Edo period (1615–1868), which reflected the tastes and proclivities of a rising class of urban commoners, known as chonin. Chnin merchants and artists grew rich providing goods and services to the inhabitants of Japan’s rapidly growing cities. Strict stratification of Japanese society, however, prevented prosperous townspeople from advancing socially despite their wealth. As a result, many pursued hedonistic pleasures and pastimes.

Most ukiyo-e artists created both paintings and designs for woodblock prints, depicting the pleasures and pastimes associated with the floating world. Fine paintings commanded high prices, but mass-produced woodblock prints were within the reach of almost everyone. Low cost alone, however, did not account for the immense popularity of ukiyo-e prints. The subversive subject matter made them irresistibly intriguing. Images of women, especially entertainers and the denizens of the licensed (and unlicensed) brothels, were purchased as reminders of their sex appeal and fashionable style. Depictions of actors were procured by devotees of Kabuki, the robust and lowbrow theater.

Other figural themes included sumo wrestlers, dandies and male prostitutes, ghosts and demons, mythological and legendary heroes, and ordinary townspeople engaged in seasonal pastimes. Consumer products were featured in these images, including the latest fashions and textiles, makeup, elegant pipes, lacquers, ceramics, clocks, rare plants and flowers, and even pets. Landscapes, too, became an important sub-genre, first in the form of illustrated guidebooks in the 18th century and then as single-sheet prints in the 19th. Interest in landscapes reflected the government’s loosening of restrictions on travel, prompting city dwellers to take to the road in search of adventure and exotic pleasures.

Ukiyo-e masters evolved a distinctive style that featured fluid yet descriptive outlines, novel vantage points, bold areas of clear color unimpeded by chiaroscuro, and audacious compositions with off-center subjects and dramatic cropping. Meanwhile, block carvers and printers developed innovative printing techniques. Consequently, ukiyo-e images were fresh and contemporary, appealing to the popular tastes of the townspeople.

“Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints” also features works by contemporary artists inspired by ukiyo-e and the social and conceptual underpinnings that inform them. Iona Roseal Brown, based in Washington, D.C., sees parallels between hip-hop culture and the floating world. Graffiti artist Gajin Fujita portrays East Los Angeles gang members as Japanese warriors against a backdrop of heavily tagged walls. Nagano-based artist Tabaimo focuses on notions of transience and estrangement in her animated video titled “Hanabi-ra” (Flower Petal), which appropriates imagery from ukiyo-e prints. These works demonstrate that ukiyo-e remains a vital artistic force, as relevant today as when it was created by Japan’s pre-modern Pop artists.

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