IN THE GALLERY
This exhibition explores the enduring theme of place in Japan through a wide variety of print media. In the premodern era the idea of the “famous place” (meisho) was linked to courtly poetry practices praising significant sites, and prints and illustrated books referred to and updated these must-see destinations for a broad audience. For modern artists the concept of “place” became more complicated in the twentieth century, as they bore witness to industrialization, two world wars, globalization, and a succession of art movements. While some artists reflected upon the changes of the twentieth century in their work, others promoted sites of national importance, and still others sought to reimagine what constituted “famous places” in the new landscapes of modern Japan as well as in the world beyond.
Woodblock prints and illustrated books expanded the concept of the famous place, featuring views of sites such as Mount Fuji, the Tōkaidō Road, and the city of Edo (now known as Tokyo). Known as Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” prints by artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige transformed these landscapes for a broad audience. Later nineteenth-century prints represented places of new significance, such as the city of Yokohama, while those at the turn of the century depicted the novel experiences of the modern city.
Two print movements dominated the first half of the twentieth century. The Shin hanga, or New Print movement, continued the tradition of collaborative production, where the artist’s sketch was transformed into print by highly skilled carvers and printers, all orchestrated by the publisher. These images also tended to cast the Japanese landscape in a nostalgic mood, as may be seen in examples by Kawase Hasui and Kasamatsu Shirō. Yoshida Hiroshi also worked in this style, although he and his son, Tōshi, set up their own studios to print their works independent of a publisher.
Artists working in the Sōsaku hanga, or Creative Print movement, chose to retain creative control over their process, carving the woodblocks and printing their works themselves. Their images exploit the expressive potential of the medium itself, as may be seen in works by Hiratsuka Un’ichi, Maekawa Senpan, Saitō Kiyoshi, Sekino Jun’ichirō, and others. This movement pushed the boundaries of the medium, introducing abstraction and employing saturated colors and new monumental sizes.
The overall story of twentieth-century Japanese printmaking is one of creative experimentation, broad heterogeneity, and social consciousness. In the wartime era, many artists were obliged to contribute to the war effort, making works that engaged the idea of place as it intersected with the concept of the nation. In the postwar period artists continued to expand the potential of print by using other media such as etching, lithography, and collograph, among others, and participated in international exhibitions as well as an expanded art market. Many remained interested in the expressive potential of the subject of landscape and of the shifting meaning of place in an increasingly displaced world.