Exhibition explores the creative expression seen in Meiji-era prints

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Exhibition explores the creative expression seen in Meiji-era prints
Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915), Night Patrol in the Snow near Niu-chuang, 1894, woodblock printed triptych 14 1/8 by 27 5/8 in., 35.8 by 70.3 cm.

NEW YORK, NY.- Scholten Japanese Art is presenting, On The Vanguard: Meiji Period Woodblock Prints, a two-part exhibition, with thirty prints in each section, exploring the creative expression seen in Meiji-era prints and the acceptance of new cultural ideas in the Japanese populace at large during this dynamic period in the late 19th and early 20th century. Delineated by the reign of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912; reign 1868-1912), it was an era of rapid modernization as Japan remade itself as a nation, both figuratively, as it transformed from a feudal society based on samurai culture. Drawing on Western models, the old social classes were abolished, the army was reformed, a navy was created, and industries adopted emerging modern technologies. In the artistic community, the traditional master-student system began to be undermined by newly established Western-style art schools, and the introduction of foreign techniques for print production and photography was nearly ruinous to the once vibrant woodblock print industry. The prints in this show look at how artists recorded and responded to the introduction of foreign elements. Many print designs explored and celebrated Western influence, particularly with the first blush of the new era. But artists also responded to the market’s tendency towards nostalgia, resisting the march toward modernity. Ultimately, the artists who prevailed were those that were on the vanguard—leading the way—by embracing, a changing world while adapting and balancing society’s intermittent longing for ‘Old Japan’.

Part One—Cultures Collide, begins with a selection of prints depicting the sudden presence of foreigners in everyday life, and subsequent merging of Western and Japanese aesthetics and fashions. A triptych by Utagawa Sadahide (1807-1873) from 1861, Home of a Foreign [American] Merchant in Yokohama is a precursor to the explosion of change to come with a scene of a lively gathering of foreigners on the second floor of a mercantile establishment in Yokohama, one of the ports where Westerners were initially confined as Japan reluctantly opened to Western trade in the 1850s. One of the artist’s most famous compositions is set in Yokohama offering a view across a verandah towards a dining area partially open to the port with clipper ships in Edo Bay; the red and white stripes of a flag in the upper left corner suggests the occupants are American. In the foreground two foreign gentlemen pause near a western woman playing a stringed instrument similar to a violin but holding it in the manner of a guitar and plucking at its strings with a plectrum as though it were a shamisen. She is accompanied by geisha playing her shamisen while facing away from us. Two courtesans mingle nearby, one wearing a kimono with a red and white star pattern and a blue and white striped over-robe in an inversion of the stars and stripes of the American flag (see detail).

Yokohama officially opened in 1859 and quickly became the center for foreign commerce, rapidly growing to accommodate the flood of newcomers eager to trade. In the autumn of 1868 Japan's first Western-style hotel, the Tsukiji, opened in the Tokyo district of Tsukiji on the Sumida River, which was designated a year later as an approved residential area for foreigners. The hotel was designed by a Japanese master carpenter-cum-architect, Shimizu Kisuke II, who had trained with Western builders in Yokohama. Although the outward symmetrical design appeared foreign with a belltower adorned by a weathervane, the construction was essentially Japanese with a timber frame, dark tiled outer walls, and a tiled roof. Initially it was expected that the main entrance would be from the waterfront to receive passengers disembarking from the American-operated steamboat, City of Edo, that connected Tokyo and Yokohama, but a law restricting foreigners from direct entry by sea forced a reconfiguration of the entrance to the street side. Utagawa Kuniteru II (1830-1874) emphasized the hotel’s positioning facing the water with his 1868 triptych, The Seaside Garden of the Tsukiji Hotel in the Eastern Capital, celebrating the grand scale of the building with numerous figures seen enjoying the extensive gardens near the seawall with Japanese boats sailing past and the masts of anchored foreign ships in the right foreground. While the hotel opened to much fanfare and publicity, inspiring numerous woodblock prints of the subject, it was not particularly popular with the foreign residents and suffered the dual ignominy of first closing in 1871, and then burning to the ground the following year. Two other prints in the exhibition portray the short-lived landmark: the distinctive edifice and belltower are recognizable in the background of an 1869 print by Utagawa Yoshitora (ca. 1836-1887) depicting the interior with a view out over Tokyo Bay (see detail); and a triptych by Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842-1894) published in 1871, long after the building was destroyed, employs creative licensing by renaming it as a ‘Foreigner’s Mansion.’

In addition to architecture, one of the most noticeable influences from the foreigners was in the area of fashion. After an initial deluge of images marveling at the strange clothing, Western fashions began to creep into use. Men wore bowler hats, women donned Victorian-style fringed shawls over their kimono. In an effort to slow the pace of the Westernization of Japanese women, in 1873 the government issued an edict that women were prohibited from cutting their hair short. Nevertheless, traditional Japanese women's hairstyles were increasingly regarded as an unnecessary burden—requiring expensive and time-consuming styling with oils and fillers that were difficult to take down to wash and comb out. Citing a desire for more practical, affordable, and hygienic options, in 1885 the Women's Chignon Society (Fujin Sokuhatsu Kai) was established, and in the same year, woodblock prints began to appear providing helpful 'how to' guides for ladies seeking to learn how to style their hair in a Western fashion, including the chignon, the coil, the braid and the pompadour.

Although these instructional hair-styling prints are very scarce, likely a result of having been put to extensive use in their day, the exhibition brings together four of these rare examples, including a triptych by Adachi Ginko (b. 1853, active ca. 1870-1908) that provides multiple views of each foreign hairstyle in format mimicking carte-de-visite type photographs, accompanied by an extensive text panel explaining the benefits of foreign styles followed be detailed instructions on how to create them.

One of the artists who successfully navigated the dichotomy between old and new was Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). The exhibition features an impression of Yoshitoshi’s masterpiece popularly known as The Flute Player Triptych published in 1883 together with three other related compositions including prints illustrating the ‘Flute Player’ by his teacher, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) from 1845; a later printing of Yoshitoshi’s first attempt at the subject which he originally designed in 1868, and a version by his contemporary, Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912) published in the same year that features Yoshitoshi’s friend, the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903) in his staging of the subject that was influenced by the Yoshitoshi’s composition. Presented together, the four prints demonstrate a progression of artistic influences, organizational changes in the print industry, and the enduring market for historical subjects.

The avant-garde artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) is well-represented in both sections of the exhibition. In Part One—Cultures Collide, Kiyochika’s innovative Western-influenced landscapes captured the transformation of Edo into the modern city of Tokyo.

Part Two—The Front Lines, is an exploration of the military vanguard—literally on the front lines—with a group of thirty prints related to the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

The declaration of war with China in 1894 stimulated a burst of productivity in the woodblock print market, with Kiyochika leading the charge. Drawn primarily from a private American collection, a highlight from this group is a dramatic triptych, Picture of the Naval Battle of Pungdo in Korea, illustrating the first outbreak of naval hostilities between China and Japan on July 25, 1894 off the coast of Asan. Kiyochika depicts the Chinese gunboat Guangyi consumed by flames in a fire that was set by her crew to prevent the Japanese from salvaging the wreck. War between the two nations was officially declared six days later on August 1st.

The collection also includes two excellent but slightly different impressions of Kiyochka’s triptych, Using an Electric Searchlight in the Attack on Pyeongyang, 1894, offering a unique opportunity to study the subtle nuances to woodblock print production and to appreciate the printer’s talents as much as that of the artist who created the composition.

Kiyochika depicts Japanese artillery utilizing a searchlight fueled by a generator to pierce the inky night sky and guide their aim across the Taedong River. The distant Hyonmu Gate is illuminated by the beam of light while bursting shells cast an eerie orange glow over the city walls. Although Kiyochika had a unique personal history as a retainer with experience in real battles during the Boshin War (1868-1869), neither he, nor his colleagues, would have seen the sheer power of the pyrotechnic exposures that were employed during the Sino-Japanese War.

One of Kiyochika’s most evocative war prints is the triptych from 1894, Our Field Artillery Attacks the Enemy Camp at Jiuliancheng. In this powerful composition Kiyochika focuses on the pathos of the soldiers manning the cannon to the left and their mounted commander in the center panel, his horse bowing his head in the pouring rain. The only colorful illumination in this otherwise dark rendition is the artillery fire, pulsating yellow and orange in the distance.

While Kiyochika was a dominate artist in the field of senso-e (war prints), many print artists active during that period produced war prints in response to the strong market for images from the battles. In addition to Kiyochika, the private collection made available in Part Two—The Front Lines, offers a choice selection of works by an impressive range of artists including Chikanobu, Yoshitoshi, Ginko, Taguchi Beisaku (1864-1903), Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908), Watanabe Nobukazu (1874-1944), Utagawa Kokunimasa (1874-1944), represented by a grand six-panel print, Ohara Koson (1877-1945), Ogata Gessan (1887-1967), rare artists such as Shinohara Koyooki (active ca. 1895-1904) and Eishu (active ca. 1895), and with a stunning vertical triptych inspired by the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War designed by Yasuda Hanpo (1889-1947).

In addition to the artists previously mentioned the first half of the exhibition, Part One—Cultures- Collide, includes works by Utagawa Yoshiharu (1828-1880), Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), Kobayashi Eitaku (1843-1890), and Utagawa Kunisada III (Hosai, 1848-1920).

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