Exhibition: Nishiki–e Outshine Chinese Prints

Plum Garden at Kameido by Hiroshige Utagawa

"The Birth of Nishiki–e," the current exhibition at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art claims to be an attempt to explore Chinese influence on ukiyo–e, Japanese print art. The patchy collection of Chinese exhibits on display, however, prove more effective in highlighting the beauty of the museum's own extensive collection of Japanese prints than in demonstrating any new theories.

Nishiki–e, deriving from the Japanese word for brocade, means, in fact, ukiyo–e decorated in a colorful or gaudy style, quite opposite to the characteristic Japanese aesthetics of wabi and sabi that stress the muted, subtle, and the time–honored aspects of beauty. Accordingly, many of the works here feature extravagant decorative details such as embossing, garish colors, and mokume–zuri, that is natural wood grain directly printed on paper. The latter is seen to good effect in Triptych of Wakashu by Toyonobu Ishikawa (1711–1785), where the wood flooring in the background of the picture shows the grain of the wood used in printing with some inevitable discrepancy in size and plane. This brightly–colored picture also chooses a showy theme wakashu are in fact 'girl–like handsome youths.'

Compared to such ostentatious works, the Chinese items are left looking a little bedraggled. Hardly surprising as the Ota only managed to borrow around 20 works from China, all by unknown artists, to set against the cream of its own magnificent collection. Nevertheless, a distinct Chinese style is apparent. The Chinese prints are often larger, more heavily painted, and with stronger shading; for example, in the folds of clothing. They usually tackle over ambitious themes and splash on color for effect regardless of aesthetic demands. A good example of this is The Hundred Celebrated Beauties, which is colored in a rather haphazard way, with patches of each color evenly distributed throughout the work without reference to the form, resulting in fir trees sometimes being red, green, or blue, giving the work a kind of color–by–numbers look.

The Japanese works have a much lighter touch and, using emblematic scenes from everyday life, are more capable of attaining poetry than the rather pompous Chinese subjects. The Tea House of the Reputed Beautiful Girl Osen by Harunobu Suzuki (1725–1770) shows a cloaked samurai exchanging a meaningful glance with a beauty as he leaves, capturing a sense of subtlety and intrigue that the Chinese works lack.

During the period of these works, China had more access to the outside world than Japan with Jesuits and foreign embassies welcomed at the Manchu court. A brass plate print from the early 18th century, depicting a surrendering army is of such realistic detail that it compares with the highest products of Europe. The fact that it depicts an army of nomads armed with muskets surrendering to a Chinese army armed ostensibly with bows and arrows, seems symbolic of the fact that even with the option of learning from abroad, the Chinese showed a stubborn adherence to their native traditions.

Another flaw of much of the Chinese art is its rigidity. Chisoku Choraku, a work showing two men about to engage in a tavern brawl, is not used to express the dynamism and humor of the situation. Instead of highlighting posture and facial expression, the anonymous Chinese artist takes this as an opportunity to depict the absurdly palatial architecture of the building.

This lack of imagination contrasts markedly with such charming and intimate works as Killing Mosquitoes With Fire by Harushige Suzuki (1747–1818), or Plum Garden at Kameido by Hiroshige Utagawa (1797–1858). This work, depicting little more than a close-up of the trunk of a plum tree, reveals a masterly use of gradation, both in the pink sky and the dark wood, and demonstrates the artist's confidence in deriving beauty from humble subjects.

The Japan Times
9th December, 2000
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