IN HIS ESSAY In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki considers the shifts in Japanese culture in the 20th century, noting with displeasure the influence of Western ideas and practices on the aesthetics of Japan. The introduction of electric lights is especially troubling to Tanizaki: ‘I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark,’ he writes. ‘I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly’, for he longs for a place ‘where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them’.
This desire to ‘turn off the electric lights’, to revisit a time before the arrival of Western aesthetic influences, is one which informs shin hanga, a print-making movement in the early 20th century which sought to revive the traditional ukiyo-e style. The shin hanga prints were characterised by their nostalgic portrayals of Japan, a reaction against emerging Western dogmas in Japanese art and culture. From the termination of Japan’s self-imposed policy of isolationism (sakoku) in the 1850s, cultural exchange between Japan and the West impacted both Japanese trade and artistic sensibilities, and it was in response to this modern, European-influenced movement that the shin hanga artists worked. (It is well known that the West was simultaneously entranced by the beauty and delicacy of Japanese art, design and horticulture, giving birth to Japonisme.) Watanabe Shozaburo is credited for the success of the shin hanga style, manufacturing and distributing prints to a Western market captivated by this romanticised depiction of a bygone Japanese way of life. Frederick Wells III was one such American enamoured with shin hanga, and prominent pieces from his substantial collection are on view in Seven Masters: 20th-Century Japanese Woodblock Prints from the Wells Collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The ‘seven masters’ in question are Fritz Capelari, Hashiguchi Goyo, Yamamura Koka, Ito Shinsui, Yamakawa Shuho, Torii Kotondo and Kawase Hasui, and the exhibition charts the formative roles they played in the development of the shin hanga movement.
Seven Masters features 112 works, created at a turning point in Japanese culture. These prints – which range from Capelari’s famous ‘Umbrellas’ (the creation of which is believed to mark the birth of the shin hanga style), to Yamamura Koka’s striking depiction of Morita Kan’ya XIII as Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean – document the rapid modernisation of Japan and its increasing dialogue with the West, as well as looking back to a more traditional way of living and making art.
The idiosyncratic shin hanga style has endured in popularity in the west, as well as in Japan, and this, Andreas Marks (curator of Japanese and Korean Art at the MIA) explains, is largely down to the imagery, what he calls ‘the pictorial language of the prints’. ‘Depictions of landscapes and beauties can be understood and cherished universally,’ he continues, ‘Hence they are at the focus of collecting in the West, now and in the past.’ The so-called ‘actor prints’ of ukiyo-e and shin hanga have enjoyed success as a result of being ‘strange and exotic’ for Westerners, he explains, before suggesting that shin hanga prints continue to be collected for the ‘high level of craftmanship’ that is required to produce them.
Marks has edited a catalogue to accompany the exhibition, which will, he says, go ‘far beyond the exhibition by providing detailed essays on each one of the seven artists featured… as well as, until now, unpublished material. The focus is on the artists being active as print-designer and also painter.’ The catalogue contains essays by Ajioka Chiaki, a scholar of Japanese art and member of the Australia-Japan foundation board, Ishida Yasuhiro, lecturer at Kyushu University and Yuiko Kimura-Tilford, former research associate in the MIA’s department of Asian Art.
The resonances that this exhibition (and the wider shin hanga movement) share with Tanizaki’s essay are striking. Yet, it is not for this essay that Tanizaki is most famous: alongside his role as self-appointed spokesperson for the revival of Japanese traditional cultural values, he is celebrated for his enduringly beautiful translation of The Tale of Genji. Curiously, an Edo-period screen depicting the opening episodes from The Tale of Genji would come to be Mary Griggs-Burke’s initial acquisition of Japanese art in 1956. This was the first of innumerable acquisitions, con-tributing to a huge and culturally significant collection, which Griggs-Burke and her husband exhibited in a self-made ‘museum’ of sorts.
Now, over 700 pieces of Japanese and Korean pieces have been formally given to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, some of which can be seen in Gifts and Japanese Art from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection in the Japanese galleries. This space comprises 16 newly installed galleries devoted to Japanese art and Korean art. At 11,000 square feet, the Japanese galleries are some of the most expansive of any museum in North America and tangibly demonstrate the museum’s commitment to the arts of East Asia. Matthew Welch, deputy director and chief curator at the MIA, attests to the literary connection, observing that ‘Mrs Burke had a particular passion for Heian period literature and collected paintings that illustrated scenes from fictional romances and narrative tales. Thus, in the Burke exhibition, there is a room entitled ‘Picturing the Classics’.’ Elsewhere, the galleries are arranged according to a loose chronology, with several of the rooms cohering with a particular subject, with themes including ‘The Floating World’, ‘Encounters with the Outside World’, and works depicting cranes – again favourites of Mary Griggs-Burke.
The original small-scale exhibiting space that Griggs-Burke established with her husband was designed by Kobashi Yasuhide, and placed particular emphasis on the environment of the collection, and harmony within that environment. Welch reiterates the importance of a complementary setting, noting that ‘the often intimate nature of Japanese art makes it a challenge in traditional, monumentally-scaled and assertively Western (think Beaux Arts) museum settings… In our own galleries we strive for a similar effect, while recognising the practicalities of being a public institution.’
The Griggs-Burke collection, which was bequeathed in part to the MIA and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in March 2015, spans several centuries, and the MIA’s latest exhibition comprises 175 works, which range from the 1st century BC to the 19th century. Highlights include a pair of folding screens by Ogata Kenzan, a water jar created in the kilns of Iga and used in tea ceremonies in the 1500s, and a Korean maebyong vase from the 12th century, inlaid with cranes. Many of the pieces in the exhibition have never been shown at the MIA before and complement the nearly 8,000 objects in the museum’s collection, making it one of the most significant encyclopaedic collections of Japanese art in the US.
Seven Masters until 13 March and Griggs-Burke until 8 May, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, www.artsmia.org