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"Visions of Japan: Prints and Paintings from Cleveland Collections"
2004-12-12 until 2005-02-20
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH, USA

The exhibition presents exquisitely crafted color woodcuts and paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries in the ukiyo-e tradition (images of the floating world), depicting scenes of daily life and worldly pleasures. Inspired by the vibrant culture of the capital of Edo, (present-day Tokyo), portraits of courtesans, Kabuki actors and landscapes were favorite subjects. These prints were produced in workshops, made for a broad audience and sold for 20 mon, the price of a bowl of Soba noodles.

Although varied in approach, medium and style, modern Japanese prints retain an essential Japanese character. A respect for materials, frequently associated with Japanese artisans, is evident in the use of handmade papers and traditional tools.

Some of the first images of Japan to enter the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, prints donated by Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade in 1916, included Kitagawa Utamaro (1750-1806), an artist who represents the golden era of printmaking as well as a rare, early hand colored image of The Death of the Buddha (1710). These early gifts provided an admirable beginning for the collection, inspiring other collectors in ensuing years.

Images of courtesans and actors are of particular interest in the exhibition, including portraits by two seminal artists working in the 1790's--Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1754-1806) and T˘shűsai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794-95). Utamaro specialized in courtesan portraits, developing okubi-e (large-head print format), which emphasized the face and shoulders of the subject. Simarily, Sharaku, who worked for only nine months from May 1794 to Feb. 1795, used the format to capture the essence of a character portrayed on stage by Kabuki actors as seen in Ichikawa Ebizo IV as Takemura Sadanoshin

By the 19th century, main roads and waterways connected Japans three most important cities, Edo, Kyoto and Osaka allowing people to travel frequently throughout the country. Katsushika Hokusai's (Japanese, 1760-1849) masterpiece, Mt. Fuji in Clear Weather (early 1830s), one of two prints featured in the exhibition from his most famous print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, was printed so that the natural grain of the cherry block is incorporated into the design. And˘ Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858) became famous for his illustrations of the rest stops along the well-traveled highways. Prints from his well-known series Fifty-Three Stations of the T˘kaid˘ were inexpensive souvenirs for those who journeyed the routes. Japanese landscapes in various seasons, which were also very popular, are represented in the exhibition.

Painting also was important in 18th and 19th-century Japan. The meticulously rendered Ukiyo-e paintings given by Mrs. Smith in memory of her husband Kelvin Smith, are highlights of the Museum's Asian collection. The exhibition also features a unique collection of Otsu-e, folk paintings and prints from the city of Otsu. Purchased as souvenirs, they were humorous caricatures of folk heroes, the seven lucky gods and contemporary society. Although Otsu-e have rarely been acquired by Westerners, the examples featured in the exhibition are on loan from the collection of Dr. Daniel and Mitzie Verne who collected the works while in Japan in the early 1950s.

By the late 19th-century, the ukiyo-e print tradition had stagnated. Two movements emerged, revitalizing the production of woodcuts, sparking the beginning of modern printmaking in Japan. Shin-hanga (ônew printsö) revived the quality of the best ukiyo-e prints by emphasizing fine craftsmanship and the creation of new designs. These prints were created with specialized block carvers and printers translating an artists original design into a woodcut. Although traditional subjects were used, such as courtesans and landscapes, the artists were often influenced by European concepts of space, light and shade, and naturalism. For example, Torii Kotondo (Japanese, 1900-1976) paints a beautiful woman washing her hair (late 1920s) but the pale figure is set against a darker background, reversing the customary tonal contrast of such a scene. Kawase Hasui (Japanese, 1883-1957) created atmospheric images recalling ukiyo-e subjects of particular locales enveloped by seasonal beauty exemplified by Snow at Zojoji Temple of 1929.

In S˘saku-hanga (ôcreative printsö) the artist himself completed each step in the printmaking process, from carving to printing, increasing the status of the print. Kanae Yamamotos (Japanese, 1882-1946) print Fisherman (1906) marks the beginning of the s˘saku-hanga movement. Although Japanese prints influenced European and American art from about 1855, Japanese artists took note of foreign styles and ideas. In this way, while William Nicholsons (British, 1872-1949) designs reflect aspects of ukiyo-e woodcuts, he in turn effected the work of Yamamoto.

Shik˘ Munakata (1903-1975) exemplifies a progressive Japanese artist who successfully synthesized Eastern and Western ideas. Like European artists, cutting the block was a significant act of artistic creation, but influenced by traditional Japanese ink painting, he printed only in black, inspired by scenes from folklore and Buddhism. The Ten Great Disciples of Shakyamuni: Ragora (1961), on loan from the Dr. Daniel and Mitzie Verne Collection, is mounted as a hanging scroll emphasizing the importance of traditional aesthetics.

Other 20th-century Japanese artists adopted many Western printmaking techniques. Although traditional aspects of Japanese art such as the use of mica, gold, silver and embossing are retained, lithography, etching and mezzotint are used to explore new concepts like abstraction. Katsunori Hamanishis (Japanese, b. 1949) DivisionWork No. 100 (2002), combine mezzotint and gold to create a contemporary work which recalls the past. The Museum's extensive collection of modern Japanese prints is due to the generosity of Evelyn Svec and William E. Ward.


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