POUGHKEEPSIE, NY.- Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912) was a popular artist in the Meiji period, the era from 1868 to 1912 when Japan underwent rapid westernization and the emperor was reinstated as ruler. Like many other print designers of these years, Chikanobu worked with subjects of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, such as actors, courtesans, famous sites, and beautiful women, while at first reflecting western conventions in art and picturing current events, such as the Saigo Rebellion and various battles of the Sino-Japanese War. In fact, his prints are frequent illustrations in history books about the Meiji era. However, he later changed his approach and embraced more traditional themes stemming from his recollections of life in old Edo, before the modern period ushered in by the Meiji emperor.
The new touring exhibition Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints (to be presented March 23-May 13 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center), centers upon several areas of the artist's interest, including early works, kabuki theater, current events and modernization, traditional views, famous sites and festivals, virtuous conduct, famous warriors (men and women), the Sino-Japanese War, and beautiful women. The exhibition comprises nearly sixty woodblock prints and one painting, including individual sheets, numerous triptychs, and several series, all from the large collection of Chikanobu prints in the permanent art collection of Scripps College (Claremont, CA).
Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints was organized by Bruce A. Coats, a Professor of Art History and the Humanities at Scripps College, in conjunction with colleagues at several liberal arts colleges in the United States. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the exhibition opened in August at Scripps College, followed by showings at Carleton College, Vassar, Denison University, Boston University, DePauw University, and the International Christian University in Tokyo. An extensive catalogue by curator Bruce Coats shares the exhibition's name, and features additional essays by Allen Hockley, Kyoko Kurita, and Joshua S. Mostow (Hotei Publishing).
"Chikanobu was a student of the master Japanese woodblock print designers Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, and Kunichika, and he used the flat planes and decorative patterning of the Japanese woodblock ukiyo-e tradition to striking effect," said Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. "In his 'pictures of the floating world,' Chikanobu placed brilliant colors, especially reds, purples, greens, and blues, in frequently grand, jolting combinations, and early on he often clothed his figures in western dress. The aniline dyes imported during this period made this transition to bold colors possible. "
Chikanobu was born in 1838 in Edo, later called Tokyo, into a samurai family from the town of Takada and was trained in Chinese and Japanese classical texts and in being a warrior. He studied painting in the prominent Kano school tradition, and around 1852 began work in the studio of Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), famous for his warrior and theater prints, then about 1855-56 joined the workshop of Kunisada (1786-1864) where he came to know Kunichika. In 1868, Chikanobu supported the old rule of the Tokugawa shogun rather than the renewed authority of the emperor, and suffered reprisals from the authorities. After being captured twice by the imperial army he returned to Tokyo in the early 1870s where he resumed his interest in woodblock prints.
However, Chikanobus engagement with political and military issues would continue after this early period with numerous prints depicting uprisings of the samurai in 1877 -- shrewdly, he depicted them through the intermediary of top actors who starred in current kabuki stage productions about the conflict. For instance, in The Morning East Wind Clearing the Clouds of the Southwest/Okige no kum harau asagochi, the artist featured the famous actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1839-1903) as the rebellious samurai leader Takamori in the center of a beautiful, complex composition dense with brocaded patterns, surprising contrasts, and dramatic posturing.
By the 1890s, however, as curator Bruce Coats has written, Chikanobu treated his warrior prints differently, concentrating more on an overall sense of narrative and emotions with more naturalism involved. For example, in Bamboo Joints: The Chrysanthemum Garden/Take no hito fushi: Kikubatake, which depicts the last act of the play, Lord Kiichis Three Books of Tactics/Kiichi hogen sanryaku no maki, retired warrior Yoshioka Kiichi has given Minazuru, his daughter, a black lacquered box containing secret military tactics. However, she has given the box to her beloved Ushiwakamaru, a warrior of an opposing clan who is dressed in disguise. Rather than being an advertisement for actors (as was his earlier print The Morning East Wind Clearing the Clouds of the Southwest/Okige no kum harau asagochi), this print underscores a complicated story and does so within an airy, misty setting of chrysanthemum flowers. Both prints are in the exhibition.
Besides warrior prints, Chikanobu made numerous woodblock prints incorporating fashionable Western dress and new customs, especially in the 1880s, a time when the government encouraged interest in the emperor as a way of forging a new national identity. Chikanobu made several prints of the new Emperor Meiji and his court, including from the exhibition Great Horseraces at Ueno Parks Shinobazu Pond Illustrated/Ueno fushi no daikeba no zu, of 1884, where the emperor wears Western military dress and the empress and her attendants wear traditional Japanese court robes. In the past, Ueno Park had been associated with the shoguns, and in an about-face, the new government had transformed it into a park celebrating the new modern regime.
In the mid-1880s a reaction set in against imported Western art and its many techniques and styles, generating much debate in newspapers and magazines about the definition of Japanese arts. Chikanobu, in response, began making prints celebrating Japanese literary and political history and older customs, as featured in the exhibition by Depiction of a Childrens Cockfight/Yochi niwatori awase no zu (1884), where samurai children observe an activity well known to the artist since childhood.
By the 1890s, as Coats has noted, Japanese women were being considered as the keepers of traditional Japanese customs and social traditions, and books were published regarding their proper behavior, including how to dress and act. Inspired by these texts, Chikanobu designed a series of woodblock prints casting women in traditional dress and posture, called, Ladies Etiquette Pictures/Onna reishiki no zu, which are represented in the exhibition. In contrast, from 1895 to 1898, Chikanobu concentrated his prints on the theme of beautiful women, a subject that had been popular with earlier ukiyo-e artists, many of whose works were being reprinted for sale in Japan and abroad. In fact, Chikanobus portraits manifest a stylized depiction of beauty unchanged from his depictions of them in the 1870s. For instance, his series, Mirror of the Ages/Jidai kagami, from 1896-1897, presents women of diverse historical periods, including the Kanei Era, that are represented in the exhibition.
As tourism became more popular in the 1890s, Chikanobu designed a number of woodblock prints featuring popular attractions and locations, including the exhibition work Moonviewing Over the Sarashina Rice Fields/Sarashina tagoto no tsuki (1891). In 1853 the flooded rice paddies of Sarashina reflected in the light of the moon were featured in a well-known print by master print designer Hiroshige