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Exhibition: Ukiyo-e at the Turn of the 20th Century

Sight at Ochanomizu (1880) by Kiyochika Kobayashi

Ukiyo-e reflects turn of century mood changes across Japan

The Meiji period is considered to mark one of the low points of ukiyo-e, Japan's distinctive art of wood block prints. This, however, is not very apparent at the current exhibition at the Ota Memorial Museum. Titled Ukiyo-e at the Turn of the 20th Century, the exhibition has quite a wide focus, ranging from the late Edo to early Showa periods.

This was a era when Japan first lost confidence in itself, turned its back on many of its traditions in a desperate effort to catch up with the Western nations, then, regaining confidence, turned once again to cherish its traditions.

The girl Tojin Okichi by Kiyoshi Kobayakawa (1898-1948) shows a girl passively playing the shamisen as an American kurofune (black ship) lurks on the horizon. This nonchalance is in marked contrast to the excitement of an earlier print, American Ship, by Sadahide Utagawa (1807-1873). This shows a seascape alive with boats dominated by a giant American paddle steamer, magnified in the mind of the artist to titanic proportions. This accurately reflects the deep psychological impact that foreign sea power must have had on the Japanese mind.

More artistically successful, however, is his print, A ship Coming into the Bay of Nagasaki, which depicts a Russian sailing ship. The billowing sails and fluttering flags allow Utagawa plenty of scope to impress, just as the Russians seek to impress as they go ashore in a longboat with trumpets blaring and drums beating.

Trade with the advanced Western economies gave artists access to brighter inks. This can be seen in The Restaurant at Kashiwa-ya at Higashi Ryohgoku (1878). In this work by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), vivid reds, greens, purples, and blues jostle for attention. rather canceling each other out.

Other artists were less carried away by such technical innovations, but started to use Western techniques of solidity and shade at variance with traditional ukiyo-e. Sight at Ochanomizu by Kiyochika Kobayashi (1847-1915) shows a night scene of a boat on a moat surrounded by clouds of fireflies. In Mt. Fuji on a Fine Morning After Snowfall (1932), the artist, Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) allows nature to do his shading for him. The snow coating the windward side of the pine tree creates the effect of light and shading, giving the tree greater solidity.

The work that best captures the mood of the period is perhaps Children’s Play: Snowball Battle (1906) by Shōun Yamamoto (1870-1965). Showing a rather rambunctious snowball fight between two groups of children, it echoes the brutal and heroic struggles fought out in the Manchurian snows between the Imperial Russian and Japanese armies the year before. Two groups of boys – one wearing caps, the other with handkerchiefs tied around their heads – fight in the snow.

In the foreground, a boy with a cap wrestles a foe to the ground. With his other hand he raises a snowball in the air, about to strike, as a smaller boy grabs his hand from behind in order to stop him. The drama of this composition is heightened by the sharp diagonal pattern on the main boy’s coat.

In the same way, the traditional and the modern grapple with each other in this refreshing exhibition of an art form that remained characteristically Japanese.

Ukiyo-e at the Turn of the 20th Century: Part II runs until Mar. 31, 2001 at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art

The Japan Times
24th March, 2001
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