Major museums presenting major woodblock print exhibitions

Norton Simon Museum Hiroshige Sumida River Embankment

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japan, 1797–1858), The Sumida River Embankment in the Eastern Capital, 1858, from The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Color woodblock, ōban, 36.4 x 24 cm, Norton Simon Museum Collection.

Cultural News, 2010 August Issue

By Meher McArthur

Asian Art Curator, Author and Educator

For admirers of the Japanese woodblock print, this is certainly a good year to be living in Southern California. Several major art museums are focusing on this art form for a large part of 2010 and beyond and are providing visitors with many different ways to enjoy this medium.

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, best known for its outstanding Western art collection, is offering a rare and luxurious look at its extensive collection of prints by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). On view for six whole months until January 17, 2011, Hiroshige: Visions of Japan presents approximately 175 prints by one of Japan’s most renowned woodblock print designers.

A native of Edo (modern Tokyo), Hiroshige trained under Utagawa Toyohiro, who specialized in images of beautiful women, and began his career designing prints of beauties and actors from the pleasure quarters, the main subjects of the print genre known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures from the floating world.”

In the early 1830s, he was commissioned by an Edo publisher to produce a series of places along the Tokaido, the Eastern Sea Route that linked Edo with the Imperial capital, Kyoto. His series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi), came out in 1833 and was an immediate success. Travelers bought the prints as souvenirs of their journey along the road and people who dreamed of making the trip one day bough them to feed their fantasies.

The Norton Simon Museum exhibition includes an entire Tokaido series, offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy Hiroshige’s talent not only for depicting the rich and varied landscape of Japan in the early 19th century, but also for capturing the effort, emotion and energy required to travel along this almost 300-mile road.

He shows feudal lords and their entourages setting out from Edo across the bridge at Nihonbashi in the early morning, winding their way up narrow mountain paths, wading across rivers, and resting at tea houses. In some prints, most famously the scene of figures caught in a sudden rainstorm at Shono, he masterfully creates a sense of drama and emotion as he shows figures battling against capricious weather conditions.

The exhibition includes other versions of Hiroshige’s Tokaido series, of which there were several, as well as views of Osaka, Kyoto and a later series of views of the famous Mount Fuji. It also includes 20 delightful prints depicting birds and flowers, another genre in which Hiroshige excelled. However, perhaps the most captivating group of prints in the Norton Simon Museum’s exhibition is Hiroshige’s last great series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, in which, Hiroshige sought to capture the cultural essence of his hometown. Produced in 1856, a year before his death, this series is vertical in format and plays cleverly with composition.

In many of the prints, Hiroshige creates an amusing interplay between an object or creature in the foreground and the scene in the distance. For example, the print Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival depicts more than just a cat looking out of a window. In the distance, a large procession of people is participating in the Torinomachi Festival, in which owners of restaurants, tea houses and brothels prayed for prosperity. We are looking at this festival from a room in a brothel, and the rake-shaped hairpins lying on the floor, which were purchased at the festival as a gift from a man to his lover (presumably behind the screen at the left) implies “raking in” money in the coming year. Hiroshige’s knowledge of his home town and its culture, his gift for design and composition and his sense of wit, all come together to affectionately capture the cultural and emotional landscape of his day.

LACMA Woodbock Print Waitress Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892), Looking Weighed Down: The Manner of a Waitress at Fukagawa in the Tenpo Era, 1888, 10th month, Color woodblock print, Image: 34.77 x 23.97 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection. Photograph © 2010 Museum Associates/LACMA

After visiting the Norton Simon Museum’s Hiroshige exhibit and viewing the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, it is worth catching Pacific Asia Museum’s exhibition entitled One Hundred Not So Famous Views of LA, a series of paintings by Barbara Thomason inspired by Hiroshige’s woodblock prints. On view until August 29th, this exhibition substitutes the famous places of Edo with iconic views of Los Angeles, incorporating the distinctive wildlife and climate of these urban vistas. The results, painted on vinyl, but incorporating many of the printing techniques, including bokashi, or color gradation, seen in Hiroshige’s works, are intimate and quirky, depicting the many facets of life in Southern California.

At the Los Angeles County Museum until October 26, an exhibition called Eat Japan: Japanese Prints on Food assembles thirty-five woodblock prints from the late 18th through the 20th centuries to explore the theme of the cultivation, presentation and partaking of food and drink. A part of LACMA’s EATLACMA project (a year-long investigation into food, art, culture and politics, organized in collaboration with Fallen Fruit), the exhibition employs prints by such artists as Kitagawa Utamaro (1753‑1806), Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786‑1865) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839‑1892) to illustrate the role of food and drink in various aspects of Japanese traditional culture.

Images of picnics under delicate cherry blossoms are suggestive of the seasonal rituals involving food and drink that give structure to Japanese traditional life, while images of sophisticated entertainments, such as meetings with elite geisha or tea ceremony gatherings, both of which include interludes for highly aesthetic foods, bespeak the importance of food and drink-oriented ritual. Many printed images, however, focus on drunken revelry in the pleasure quarters of Japan’s major cities, where rice wine, or sake, has long been consumed as a means of relaxing and forgetting troubles.

The final woodblock print exhibition of this year is a monumental undertaking at the San Diego Museum of Art. Dreams and Diversions: 250 Years of Japanese Woodblock Prints from The San Diego Museum of Art will open on November 6, 2010 and continue through June 5, 2011 and will include more than 400 Japanese woodblock prints from the Museum’s collection (rotated half-way through the exhibition), many of which have not previously been on view.

Ranging from some of the earliest examples of ukiyo-e by Moronobu Hishikawa (ca. 1618–1694) to the work of modern print masters of the 1920s and 30s, Dreams and Diversions will present a survey of Japanese woodblock printing. The exhibition will include a section focusing on the characters of the floating world, or ukiyo, namely the brothels, tea houses and kabuki theaters of Yoshiwara, the historic entertainment district of Edo. It will include several prints by noted artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865), whose dynamic portraits of actors wearing colorful costumes and grimacing facial expressions, helped lure Edo-ites into the theaters in the mid-19th century and still fascinate collectors and museum visitors today.

Visitors still hungering for landscape prints will be able to enjoy such prints by Hiroshige, including a complete set of his series Famous Views of the Sixty-Odd Provinces, and some masterpieces of print design by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), including a number of works from his series The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c.1830), including “Rainstorm Beneath the Summit,” one of the most dramatic renderings of Japan’s iconic mountain.

In 1859, on the heels of the forced opening of Japan to the West by the U.S. Naval Commodore Perry, the port at Yokohama was established and a new genre of woodblock prints arose known as Yokohama-e. The exhibition includes a special feature on the 1860s prints from Yokohama, San Diego’s sister city. Little studied until now, these prints provide access to the Japanese reception of foreigners in Yokohama, particularly Americans.

(This era will also be the subject of a related collaboration with the University of San Diego. Natural history prints, illustrated books, and prints from the era of modernization and westernization from the 1860s to 1930s will also be on view both at the Museum and at the Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Print Galleries at the University of San Diego.)

Finally, a section of the exhibition will focus on modern prints from the 1920s and 1930s known as Shinhanga, or “New Prints.” Artists such as Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950) and publishers, notably Watanabe Shozaburo, revived the traditional Japanese techniques of woodblock printmaking and incorporated Western aesthetic sensibilities. Yoshida and others not only kept woodblock printing alive in the 20th century, but injected into it a vibrancy that has ensured that this very Japanese art form will continue to have worldwide appeal.