'Japanese Prints in Transition' - classics and contemporaries at the Legion of Honor

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Tuesday April 16, 2024
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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839—1892) 'Fujiwara no Yasumasa Playing a Flute by Moonlight,' 1883 (partial view;  courtesy FAMSF)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839—1892) 'Fujiwara no Yasumasa Playing a Flute by Moonlight,' 1883 (partial view; courtesy FAMSF)

The lavish new exhibit, "Japanese Prints in Transition," at the Legion of Honor, is as welcome as spring. Karin Breuer, former Curator in Charge at the Achenbach Foundation, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, organized the exhibit with a handsome catalog from more than 3,000 prints in the collection.

The exhibit spans the earliest prints to works by artists competing with photography in the early 20th century, as well as the little-known Yokohoma school artists, who flourished after the "gunboat diplomacy" of Commodore Perry pried open Japan to westerners, after 220 years of isolation. The Yokohama artists depict the exotic westerners, and their strange hair and dress, with humorous or gimlet-eyed views.

"Japanese Prints in Transition" is perhaps a revisionist critique of the 2010 FAMSF exhibit "Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism," which featured prints as source material for western artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin. Art movements like Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau all borrowed from the stylistic innovations of the prints, an influence labelled Japonisme or Orientalism.

Yōshū Chikanobu's 'A Mirror of Japan's Nobility,' 1887 (photo: courtesy FAMSF)  

Despite being works on paper, and created in a collaborative process involving artist/designer, carver, printer, and publisher, the bold compositions of Katsushika Hokusai rival Picasso's, Utagawa Hiroshige's sublime "rightness" evokes Matisse, and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi combines Goya's depths with the lushness of Fassbinder films.

Marquee Stars Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige
The exhibit begins with the early viewings of women in a variety of poses in interior settings by Kitagawa Utamaro, with muted vegetable dye colors. The actor prints are more lively, depicting the social milieu of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in the shogunate period.

A rigid class structure was imposed by the shogunate, with merchants at the bottom, who were allowed to spend freely upon Kabuki theater, drinking, dining, and geishas, in the Yoshiwara District, where brothels were licensed.

The term Ukiyo or Floating World, described the transience of such pleasures, "Ukiyo-e" meaning pictures of the floating world, in which falling cherry blossoms are a metaphor for time passing.

Like Shakespeare's plays in the Elizabethan era, all the Kabuki roles were played by men, acting off limits to women except very early on. The female roles were played by pre-pubescent boys; in 1652 these roles were taken by men with their forelocks shaved, a signifier of maturity. Homosexuality likely existed among the male actors, but lines blurred.

Landscape emerges as a theme in works by Hokusai. He used the newly synthesized Prussian Blue in "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji," and "Great Wave" and "Fuji in Clear Weather" deserve their iconic status. Hiroshige followed with his series, "Fifty-Three Stations of the Takaido" and "One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo," which innovate unusual vantage points, and dramatic depictions of wind and rain that Van Gogh copied.

Hiroshige was successful in his day with "pastoral views for city dwellers," depictions of a vanishing world.

Masami Teraoka's 'Tattooed Woman and Geisha III,' from the series
'McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan,' 2018 (photo: FAMSF)  

Other themes exploit representations of warriors, battles, and myths, as with Utagawa Kunioyoshi's fantastical "At the Bottom of the Sea in Daimotsu Bay." But the giant, and student of Kuniyoshi, who arrived on the scene was Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892).

Yoshitoshi Revival
The myopic view that important Japanese printmaking ended with Hiroshige was upended by the 1980-82 exhibition, "The Bizarre Imagery of Yoshitoshi," which appeared in several major venues, including FAMSF, with a catalog by Roger Keyes and George Kuwayama.

Kuwayama wrote: "A reevaluation began in the late 1960s, and today he is admired along with Kiyochika and Kunichika as one of the three leading Ukiyo-e artists of the Meiji period... Deeply introspective and for periods mentally ill, he often seems to reveal his inner torment in his work. His work delved into realms that appeal to modern audiences: themes dealing with the occult, with demonic violence, sexual sadism, and hallucinatory imagery."

Turmoil that resulted from the opening to the West was reflected in prints depicting violence, murder, and lust. Yoshitoshi's dismal sales history benefited from the turmoil. He began turning out prints for newspapers, shinbun-e. The drama was enhanced by the introduction of coal tar dyes, allowing vivid reds, purples, and greens. Yoshitoshi used a red representing blood mixed with alum and glue for his series "Twenty-Eight Famous Murders with Verse."

After the shogunate fell in 1867, the Meiji era with emperor Mutsuhto produced a period of relative stability. Yoshiitoshi's prints, and his "Hundred Views of the Moon" series, took on new subtlety.

Two prints in the exhibit 'Japanese Prints in Transition,' at the Legion of Honor (photo: Gary Sexton/FAMSF)  

Violence and gruesome fates are now implied, with passages of serenity and beauty, personified by Yoshitoshi's mature masterpiece, "Fujiwara no Yasumasa Playing a Flute by Moonlight." The musician stalked by the bandit is saved. His music lulls the would-be attacker. The colors are the most subtle shades of blue and gray and gold.

The Meiji era introduced new subject matter; modernization and a parliamentary form of government which reflected a convergence with western society and norms, at the same time Japan was asserting its own dynamism through industrialization.

Yoshu Chikanobu became a sort of court painter, depicting the royal family in "A Mirror of Japan's Nobility" with the emperor wearing a suit resuming a western military outfit. The Empress is depicted in Victorian costume, with the son (borne by one of the emperor's concubines). The lush patterning of the clothes and decor is later adopted by Gustav Klimt, who collected Japanese prints and kimonos.

X-rated and Pop
The exhibit contains a separate gallery featuring shunga (spring) erotic prints, not included in the catalog. The unexpected inclusion is in keeping with the nature of shunga: private, somewhat furtive delectation. There are several amusing examples of shikake-e (trick pictures). Unsurprisingly, considering the sex of the artists and patriarchal society, male endowment is exaggerated, and apparently irresistible.

"Ukiyo-e Pop" closes the show, featuring woodblock prints by Masami Teraoka, from the "Macdonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan" and "3l Flavors Invading Japan" series. These prints spoof traditional Ukiyo-e, with raunchy "geishas" salivating over oversized ice cream cones, and contrast with Teraoka's impassioned series on the AIDS pandemic, including the de Young Museum's large "American Kabuki (Oishiiwa)." In this work dealing with death and illness, Teraoka hearkens back to Yoshitoshi's world.

'Japanese Prints in Transition,' at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. $12-$32, through August 18. www.famsf.org

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