Sunday, March 20, 2011

Another Discovered Treasure

Song of the Day: Far East Movement Rockateer (Note that this an Asian American hip hop group) or Fort Minor Kenji (A hip-hop side project of Mike Shinoda a Japanese American artist and musician known from Linkin Park)

Japanese prints contain a special place in my heart as well as in the realm of art history.  I was incredibly delighted that our permanent collection was lucky enough to have at least three Hiroshige prints. 

53 Stages of the Tokaido Meisho Zuye Otsu, large series

Tokaido; Station 18. The 53 Stations, Okufu

Tokaido; Station 54, and 53 Stations, Otsu

All of these three prints are wonderful a representation of landscape prints from the Edo (1615-1868) within with the ukiyo-e was in its height in artistic style.

Brief Overview of History
(This is a complex era in Japanese history and I am only summarizing it up.  If you want a more conclusive history I have supplied some supplementary sources at the bottom)
At this time in history, Tokugawa Ieyasu had established himself a powerful new leadership position titled the Shogun.  This means that he could establish a rule, based on military power, which would control the affairs of the nation alongside the rule of the emperor.  During this era, the emperor was primarily involved with the affairs of royal society, and not with the government of the common people.  He would still be viewed as a father of his people, but it would be the Shogun who would rule the affairs of the common people. 

Tokugawa created various reforms that in turn helped inspire the creation of the ukiyo or “floating world,” as based on a Buddhist concept.* One of his drastic reforms was isolation of Japan from the outside world.  This was primarily out of fear from the spread of Christianity and its risk of manipulating his people.  Because of this the Japanese people would become forced to create and develop a culture out of their own skills and resources.  Thus, in turn, allowing the Japanese to develop new styles without the models of outside influence. The other major reform was Tokugawa’s encouragement to regulate society based on confusion class structures.  The top class remained the Samurais, who would be the only ones with the position of power and rule in the government.  The second would be the farmers, who would produce food for its people, but remain restricted in their position to produce and not gain much wealth in return. The third class includes artisans, who released from the production of food produced crafts based on their skills.  (The class that most key printmaker’s were apart of) The last class was the merchants.  Who during this name had gained a significant amount of wealth, but because they could not involve themselves in the government, could spend their wealth on other things, namely themselves.  It was these merchants that helped inspired the artisans to create.  They had the most money to spend freely and they desired much of work revolving around fleeting pleasures.**  Common works for this time include scenes of love or beautiful women. 

Or sometimes involving both like this Utamaro print

However, in the Tokugawa regime would become more restrictive.  These restrictions include more regulation on the sexual subject matter as well as limitation of travel between cities. Landscape would become the new source of inspiration.  Great print artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai would emerge as the dominate artists 200 years into the era of this style.  Their art would not only remain in Japan, but would also travel outside. (Most commonly as packing for goods shipped to outside countries.)  In fact, Lane Richard even argues that “[i]n a sense Hiroshige really taught people to see the inherent poetry of nature, whereas the earlier Chinese and Japanese landscape masters never quite succeeded in reaching the heart of the common man with their more subtle and exalted essays upon the rhythms of nature…it was Hiroshige who gave Western artists—Whistler, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh—a new vision of nature” (172-173).

About the Process of Japanese Woodblock prints
Printing had become a dominate medium for Japanese art in this era, for it could be spread cheaply and quickly in comparison to the traditional painting methods of before.  (It was mentioned in one source that a print was so cheap to afford that it only cost about a bowl of soup, making their collection very popular with the common people.)  With a new market, the style of the design changed.  Western ideas of perspective would be used in backgrounds and landscapes because it could be easier to transfer to smaller surfaces than scrolls.  This change was also easier for the masses to interpret because now scenes would depict actual places seen in everyday life over the ideals of a scroll landscape enjoyed by the elite.*** The popularity of printing also called for a new method of production.   As described by Yoko Woodson, “[t]he printing of Japanese woodblock prints in the nineteenth century was a commercial enterprise, the product of the efforts of four specialists: publisher, artist, block carver, and printer.  The superb quality of these prints was the result of their collaboration” (263).  It was these four specialized positions that allowed the prints to appear in high quality under great masses.  In fact it is believed that Hiroshige had designed in his lifetime over 8,000 print styles, which had to be innovative and pleasing to the masses.  
Roles of each group:
A. publisher—planned the costs, the theme and the artists
B. artist—drew the design as an outline on a minogami sheet, a thin sheet of paper made of kozo
C. block carver—pasted the image on the cherrywood block and carved out the piece based on the image.  Usually to make the key-block or master block.  This in turn makes the image appear backwards and the original drawing is destroyed.
D. printer—Inks and makes several original outline prints.  This is checked by the artist, who determines the color where other blocks are carved for a particular print.

In turn, all prints would be made on high quality hosho or mitsumata paper, (animal glue would have been applied a few hours before the print in order to slightly moisten the paper and make it absorb the ink and colors better) with the key block printed first with later colors added with separate carved blocks. It is also interesting to note that no press would be used for these prints. For the process of production would be to apply the water-soluble ink and color to the block, placing paper placed down face down, and then hand pressed with a smooth pad or baren
This is significantly different from the printing processes that I have mentioned previously in this blog.

I have always admired the simplicity of design and inherent skill found within Japanese prints.  I agree with Yoko Woodson in believing that “Japanese prints fulfill all the criteria of great art. They combine physical beauty, technical virtuosity, and brilliant design with great originality, boundless vitality, and fascinating content” (qtd 32).  Without these wonderful works we would not possibly have seen major art history periods like Impressionism or later more abstract artists.  These works, as well as other works outside the Western tradition, help fuel new ideas into the art world in order to prevent it from becoming too stagnant. I was very excited when I was able to work with these historical prints.      

A Hokusai Print that had inspired Vincent van Gogh

*uki stands for floating and yo means world.  This involves the idea that the world is fleeting and will disappear.  The only true path to true pleasure is to reach enlightenment with your mind transcending into a floating or otherworldly world.   
** They applied the Floating world concept to reality.  Believing that society’s pleasures are fleeting and that the goal of life is to keep them as long as possible.
***Another innovation was the discovery of Prussian Blue or as the Japanese call it Berlin Blue (beroirn). This color would allow for more dynamic colors in printing than previous colors used.  We would not see those dramatic blues in the waves or skies without it.

Textual Sources:
Takahashi, Seiichiro. Traditional Woodblock Prints of Japan. 1st edition. Translated by Richard Stanley-Baker. New York: John Weatherhill, Inc, 1972.

Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1978.

Woodson, Yoko. “Hokusai and Hiroshige: Landscape Prints of the Ukiyo-e School.” Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts. San Francisco: The Asian Art Museum of San Fancisco, 2000.  

Image Sources:
and my personal images

Supplementary Sources:
Last semester I had a history of Japan class.  Part of my information comes from lecture notes, in class video and our key textbook:
Pyle, Kenneth B. The Making of Modern Japan, 2nd ed. Lexington and Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

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