Japan works its spell on Western artUkiyo-e in Japanese literally means “pictures of the floating world.” In fact the art of ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock color prints, is exactly that, filled with details of urban landscapes and picturesque planes that touch on human desire.
Ukiyo-e is an art that celebrates the pleasures of the human senses. Often the subjects that appear in these prints are sources of urban pleasure like food, market scenes, theaters and so on. In fact, they were the ancient equivalent of posters, often used as advertising for restaurants, teahouses, brothels and performances. Formally, the style of ukiyo-e is the essential foundation of Japanese animation and films of masters like Akira Kurosawa. It is the most important Japanese artistic tradition, and dominated the popular art of Japan throughout the 19th century.
But the influence of woodblock color prints had its strongest visual effect on the art of contemporary designs in Japan. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Kumho Museum of Art is hosting Utagawa Hiroshige, a master of Ukiyo-e; and Awazu Kiyoshi, a Japanese graphic designer who produced extensive posters using woodblock prints, in one exhibit.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), one of Japan’s most celebrated woodblock printmakers, printed mostly women and kabuki actors in his earlier days. Born to a family of samurai, Hiroshige was a fire warden who practiced art as a hobby. He began his artistic career as an apprentice of Utagawa Toyohiro, a renowned painter, from whom Hiroshige inherited his name as a sign of a teacher-student tie. Most of Hiroshige’s earlier commissions were book illustrations. Then he earned attention as a landscape printmaker through his print series of celebrated places in Japan, including his “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido,” works that depict the scenes on the highway connecting Edo and Kyoto.
The art of Hiroshige had an immense influence in the tradition of Western art as well, giving rise to the notion of “Japonism.” Two of his prints, “The Bridge in the Rain” and “Mid-century Views of Edo,” were later recreated in paintings by Van Gogh.
Van Gogh, who was intrigued with the color and decorative flatness of Japanese art, owned a personal collection of about 400 Japanese prints. He even wrote from Antwerp to his brother, Theo, that he had “pinned a lot of little Japanese prints on the wall” of his studio. Later, the prints caught the eye of other European Impressionists like Degar and Monet, creating a sense of longing for the exotic Orient in the 19th-century Paris salons.
The exhibition at Kumho includes prints from the series of “Meisho Edo Hyakkei,” or “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” which is a set of 120 prints of popular sites in Edo divided into four seasons. A vibrant plum tree in spring, a rainy summer day, an autumn night with a full moon and the gate of Kaminari covered in snow are some images that capture the essence of Japanese art. The sensual depictions of aspects of nature like the moon, rain, fog and snow in Hiroshige’s works reflect the artist’s technical perfection. Hiroshige worked on the “Meisho” series until he died. At Kumho these prints will be displayed next to modern-day photographs of the sites.
Awazu, whose works are more popularly known through his book designs and typography, will be represented by his earlier designs that examine the patterns of hwatu, Korean playing cards, and works that reinterpret the prints of Hokusai, another Japanese ukiyo-e master.
by Park Soo-mee
“Hiroshige and Awazu: Ukiyo-e and Modern Japanese Design” runs through June 15 at the Kumho Museum of Art. For more information call (02) 720-5114.
As part of the exhibition, a master of ukiyo-e from Japan will oversee a hands-on workshop at the museum every Saturday and Sunday. Tomorrow at 5 p.m., Awazu Kiyoshi will give a lecture on the genre.