Living for the Moment: Japanese Prints

Otsuma and Hachirobei: The Unagidani, Scene of Urami no Samesaya (The vengeful sharkskin scabbard) by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (Japan, 1786–1865), New Edition, Part One, circa early 1830s. Promised gift of Barbara S. Bowman. All photos © 2015 Museum Associates/LACMA

THIS EXHIBITION FEATURES over 100 prints of transformative promised gifts of Japanese works to LACMA, representing the work of 32 artists. Included are examples of rare early prints of the ukiyo-e genre (pictures of the floating world), works from the golden age of ukiyo-e at the end of the 18th century by Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Katsukawa Shunsho; and 19th-century prints by great masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, amongst others. Barbara S Bowman (née Safan) was born in Los Angeles in 1925 and attended the University of Southern California (USC) for a degree in fine art. Barbara became captivated by Japanese woodblock prints early on after receiving two prints as a gift from her mother. She and her husband Morton visited Japan for the first time in 1962, and by 1978 she began actively collecting Japanese woodblock prints.

 

Ukiyo-e developed as an independent genre in painting and book illustration by the late 1600s. The idea of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo), initially based on a Buddhist phrase referring to the transience of life, was adopted by popular writers to evoke fleeting moments of beauty and pleasure that provided distraction from the cares of a regimented society. Book illustrations on these topics gained such popularity that artists began creating single-sheet woodblock prints to sell. Edo became the centre for the production of ukiyo-e prints.

 

Popular writer Asai Ryoi reinterpreted the phrase, ukiyo-e, in a more positive, less sorrowful and transient light in his book Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World), circa 1661, when he wrote: ‘Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world’.

 

In response to government restrictions placed on floating world subject matter in the early 1800s, artists explored new topics such as travel and heroes of ancient lore. Prints were also a perfect medium for artistic experimentation. After a breakthrough by Suzuki Harunobu in 1765, which allowed the production of multi-block colour prints, artists explored realism, nature, perspective, framing, and light with a level of intensity that spread their influence not only across Japan but also, after the country opened to foreign trade in 1868, to Europe. There, the Impressionists, struck by the Japanese printmakers’ use of colour, atmosphere, and composition, created a watershed style embarking upon Modernism.

 

The artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) was from a samurai family with an inherited position as a fireman in Edo Castle. In 1823, he passed on this job to a relative and became a full-time artist, having been trained by the Utagawa school master, Toyohiro (1773-1828). Hiroshige excelled at evoking the human experience of the landscape, with its varying seasons, times of day, and weather events. His sensitivity toward shifting light is best seen in early impressions of prints where he supervised colour choice, as exemplified by his finest print in the Bowman collection entitled, Minowa, Kanasugi, and Mikawashima (1857).

 

In this print, a broad strip of pink marks the horizon. The still-dark middle ground indicates light at daybreak, which has not reached the nearby plains, and roofs in the distance already reflect the growing daylight. In his late years, Hiroshige developed a unique viewpoint, looking beyond an object set close at hand to a landscape, which receded into deep distance. His framing of subjects directly influenced the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in Europe, and later Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States.

 

Also included in the exhibition are a collection of surimono, privately published Japanese prints. The majority of ukiyo-e prints were produced by publishers for general sale. Government censors enforced laws restricting the subject matter of prints and their price, by limiting the number of blocks and quality of pigments. These laws were not applied to private groups, who made prints called surimono (printed things) for distribution to a specified clientele. These groups mostly consisted of poets of kyoka (mad verse), which was based on courtly poetry but played with the rules of language and content. Fan clubs for musicians and actors also occasionally commissioned surimono.

 

The heyday of surimono lasted from the late 1700s through the first third of the 1800s, with the majority produced after 1800. These prints were most frequently distributed at the New Year to kyoka group members and would often bear poems related to that season. Printed on thick, luxurious paper, surimono often featured richly hued dyes too expensive for general use and metals such as brass, tin, and copper. Viewing these prints closely, one may also detect exquisite embossed details and areas that mimic the appearance of lacquer.

 

Surimono artists, led by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), his followers, and contemporaries, drew designs based on the poetry to be printed on the surimono, either portraying, embellishing, or playfully skewing the content with their illustrations. The design was there for the enhancement of the poetry, rather than vice versa.

 

Hokusai’s Salt Shells (Shiogai) from 1821, for example, is a still life that depicts a box of open salt cakes, a pipe case and tobacco pouch attached to a netsuke container, and a small pine tree planted in a bowl. The work is from a series of 36 surimono that included verse by many followers of the noted contemporary poet Yomo no Magao. The series title and poem refer to the New Year game of matching bifurcated shells, each containing a segment of the same poem.

 

Living for the Moment is presented in two locations at LACMA. Commercially printed ukiyo-e, mostly produced in Edo (modern Tokyo), is on display chronologically and by artistic group in the Ahmanson Building, level 2. Privately published surimono and theatrical prints of Osaka are installed in the Pavilion for Japanese Art.

 

Until 1 May in the Pavilion for Japanese Art and Ahmanson Building, Level 2, Los Angeles County Museum, www.lacma.org. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition by curator Hollis Goodall, and includes an essay by Joan B. Mirviss, US$65, ISBN 9783791354729.