The art of the Japanese woodblock print is commonly thought to capture timeless scenes of cherry blossoms or awe-inspiring forces of nature, such as in the iconic blue wave in Katsushika Hokusai’s “Under the Wave off Kanagawa.”
Yet in the current exhibition at Dickinson College’s Trout Gallery, woodblock prints from the 1830s to the 1950s, Japan’s most transitional period, are on display, showing their versatility over decades. “Timely and Timeless—Japan’s Modern Transformation in Woodblock Prints” is an exhibition that showcases the myriad of ways in which the print medium was used to visualize a transformation of a country.
The earliest prints in the exhibition date to the Edo period (1603-1868), which depict idealized landscapes and the world of entertainment brought about by urbanization and commercialization. “Night View of Saruwaka-machi” by Utagawa Hiroshige highlights night life in a thriving theater district. Japan’s industrialization brought with it electricity, growing cities and leisure time—all highlighted in this work through a skillful portrayal of light.
Hiroshige’s “Evening Snow on the Asuka Mountain,” from the series “Eight Views of the Environs of Edo,” portrays a more traditional Japanese woodblock print scene of the period, showing a snowy countryside journey, as bare trees dot the sweeping winter landscape.
Despite facing challenges from photography, lithography and Western-style painting, the woodblock print medium remained competitive through the industrial revolution in the Meiji period, especially during the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, around the turn of the century. As Japan rapidly industrialized in response to the Western opening of its ports, Japan modernized its military and took a more aggressive course of action to its neighbors. The outpouring of patriotism and nationalism found an outlook in the woodblock print.
Kobayashi Kiyochika’s “Lieutenant-General Yamaji Leads the Second Japanese Army on Landing on the Jinzhou Peninsula (Liaodong)” illustrates a modern military dressed in Western style uniforms while “Sino-Japanese War: Illustration of the Occupation of the Battery at Port Arthur,” by Ogata Gekk’ depicts an assault of Japanese troops upon a Chinese bastion. This image provides a dramatic, photojournalistic rendering of the event, albeit a sanitized and propagandistic one.
Modernity and Westernization continued in the 20th Century as Japan became a powerful economic power. The cities became increasingly urbanized, as seen in Koizumi Kishio’s “May Sports Season at Meiji Shrine Outer Gardens,” from the series “One Hundred Pictures of Great Tokyo in the Shōwa Era.” A beautiful Art Deco stadium hosts a contemporary sporting event to a crowd dressed in a mix of Eastern and Western styles.
Emerging occupations are seen in Wada Sanzō’s “Pilots,” from the series “Japanese Vocations in Pictures,” which shows how technology has made its impact in Japanese society. The blurry, undefined figures show influences from Expressionism, while its theme shows the dark undercurrents of nationalism that would explode into World War II.
World War II’s devastating impact upon Japan can be seen in the nostalgic images of Maekawa Senpan’s “Honjo Factory District” and Azechi Umetaro’s “Graveyard of Sengakuji Temple,” both from the 1945 series “Recollections of Tokyo.” While celebrating the past in the aftermath of traumatic loss, these works both have a spare, expressionistic feel that one finds in Western art of the period.
The prints of the 1950s in the exhibition continues the links to trends in Western Modern art. Umetaro’s “Stand on the Snow Gorge” is a folk art-inspired figure with bold colors, primitive shapes, as well as an uncharacteristic direct gaze at the viewer. Kawanishi Hide channels both Zen philosophy and Abstract Expressionism in “The Stone Garden,” creating shapes and forms of this movement made in the traditional woodcut method, combining ancient and modern.
This full circle of representation of style and medium, caps this well thought-out exhibition. The journey of the Japanese woodcut method, as it is followed during this historical time period, mirrors the concept of moving progressively forward while honoring the traditions of the past, allowing them to remain contemporaneously relevant.
The final segments of the exhibition are a valuable lesson in the art of the Japanese woodblock print. A fascinating video is projected, which shows the step-by-step process of the woodblock print method. The exacting detail and painstaking accuracy required of the artists is broken down, step by step, to show the process.
An extended display of the progression of each impression is also presented to show how each plate affects the paper, from the background colors, to the outlines of the figures, and the details of the forms as they are added to create the final product. Both informative pieces are sure to give the viewer and even greater appreciation for the medium of the woodblock print, as the entire exhibition does for it place in history.
“Timely and Timeless—Japan’s Modern Transformation in Woodblock Prints” is on display until April 13 in the Trout Gallery located in the Emil R. Weiss Center for the Arts on the Dickinson College campus, 240 W. High St., Carlisle. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The gallery is free and open to the public. For more information on the exhibition, visit www.troutgallery.org.