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20th-century woodblock prints on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art
Kawase Hasui (Japanese, 1883–1957), Shin Bridge, Nikko, 1953. Color woodblock print on laid paper. Gift of Momotaro Yanagida, Mayor of Moji, Japan, sister city of Norfolk.

NORFOLK, VA.- In recognition of the vibrant sister city ties between Norfolk, Va., and Kitakyushu, Japan, the Chrysler Museum of Art presents an exhibition of exquisite and colorful 20th-century Japanese woodblock prints. Gifts from Japan: Landscape Woodblocks in the Shin-Hanga Style opened March 24, just in time to complement Cherry Blossom Festivals across Japan and in Washington, D.C., and Virginia Beach. The show is on view in the Museum’s Focus Gallery (G. 229) through July 26, 2015. Admission is free.

In 1959 Norfolk formed its first sister city partnership with Moji, now called Kitakyushu, a large port city in southern Japan. Two years later, in June 1961, Moji’s mayor visited Norfolk and presented a set of 16 beautiful Japanese prints to the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, which became the Chrysler Museum of Art in 1971. Now, more than a half-century after this donation, the works will be exhibited together for the first time.

“These prints are mesmerizing!” says Alex Mann, Brock Curator of American Art, who developed the exhibition. Mann discovered the woodcuts in a Museum prints-storage drawer in October 2014 during routine collections research. Impressed with their quality and condition, he was disappointed that the Museum’s files contained little information about their makers or history. Further detective work revealed their creators, and research with newspaper archives at Norfolk’s new Slover Memorial Library uncovered the story of their donation.

Created between 1926 and 1955, these color woodblock prints are products of the Shin-Hanga, or “New Prints,” movement, which flourished in Japan throughout the early 20th century. Led by the painter Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) and the publisher Shōzaburō Watanabe (1885–1962), this group revived the long-venerated tradition of color woodblock printmaking. Their works celebrate Japan’s history and landscape through nostalgic depictions of ancient temples and old-fashioned agricultural practices. Typical is Hasui’s Shin Bridge, Nikkō (1953), with a river rushing beneath a bright red lacquered bridge near one of Japan’s most famous Shinto shrines.

The prints, however, are distinctly modern. Learning from European paintings, Shin-Hanga artists used linear perspective and shading to enhance the illusion of depth in their landscapes and immerse viewers in these poetic spaces. To depict the changing weather, times of day, and seasons, they pushed the art of color woodblock printmaking to new levels of complexity. For example, Spring in Daigo, Kyoto (1950) celebrates the changing seasons with its explosion of bright pink cherry blossoms in the foreground.

During the 1930s foreign audiences began to discover the beauty of Shin-Hanga prints, but throughout the mid-20th century, most American museums continued to collect primarily older 19th-century Japanese art. Norfolk’s sister city partnership with Moji made it an exception—and a pioneer in Japanese-American relations. Moji’s gift of Shin-Hanga prints made the city’s museum an unexpected leader in modern Japanese art collecting. Featuring 12 prints by the great master Hasui, Gifts from Japan introduces visitors both to the Shin-Hanga movement and to this important chapter in local history.

“It’s been exciting to attach names and faces to these prints,” says curator Mann, “not just the names of master artists like Hasui, but also to Mayor Momotaro Yanagida from our Japanese sister city, who was honored with a reception here at the Museum on June 22, 1961.” Having always remained in storage, the prints are in excellent condition, and their colors remain vibrant. “Decades after their donation, they offer a vivid window into the history, beauty, and magic of Japan,” Mann says.

“This Museum owes its greatest debt to Walter Chrysler for his monumental 1971 donation of his art, but our collection strength is the result of many other gifts and relationships, as well,” says Chrysler Museum Director Erik Neil. “This beautiful exhibition gives long overdue thanks to our friends in Japan.”

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