As I mentioned a few posts back, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the sister-cities relationship between Boston and Kyoto. In honor of this occasion, the MFA is hosting not one but two concurrent exhibitions celebrating Kyoto.
One focuses on representations of Kyoto in prints – including the work by Maruyama Ōkyo featured several posts ago – while the other features contemporary works by Kyoto-based artists: innovative pieces inspired by tradition, but not restricted or hampered by it.
It is always exciting to see works by artists you’ve seen before. Even in a field/medium I’m not all that interested in, namely contemporary clay (i.e. ceramics), the beautiful seihakuji light green glaze of a Fukami Sueharu piece or the distinctive triangular forms used by Kiyomizu Rokubei VIII are easy to recognize after seeing them so many times in so many different exhibitions and contexts (No images. Sorry!). And while neither ceramics nor abstract contemporary sculpture have ever been passions of mine, I have grown to have a deep respect for the difficulty of process and technique and for the masterful skill of these artists, which comes also with an appreciation for the fact that many of these artists are not simply individuals striking out on their own, but successors to a long tradition. They are masters of the old as well as the new, keeping alive the masterful traditional skills, techniques, methods, attitudes and aesthetics, albeit in new forms.
In the next room over, the prints gallery hosts an exhibit of views of Kyoto, in both (old) ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) and in (less old) shin hanga (lit. “new prints”).
Left: “Evening at the Kamo River in Kyoto” by Kawase Hasui, 1923. Museum of Fine Arts: 52.493
Right: “Night in Kyoto” by Yoshida Hiroshi, 1933. Museum of Fine Arts: 49.127
For a long time, I’d had no interest in shin hanga. It was too modern for my tastes, too realistic in its depictions, too heavily influenced by Western art. Shin hanga lacked the eccentricity, the distinct unique style of ukiyo-e. And perhaps more to the point, they were simply too new, at a time when I was seeking the traditional. Maybe I’d confused them for sōsaku hanga (lit. “creative prints”), the succeeding movement in Japanese prints, which are abstract, representing little if anything of identifiable forms, let alone those of traditional, distinctly Japanese subjects. Or perhaps it was simply that I was eager to learn about the great masters (of ukiyo-e and/or of traditional Japanese art more widely), and shin hanga, simply by virtue of its age, was not that.
However, within the field of shin hanga, there are big names to be known, and in recent months I have grown quite intrigued by their work. Prints by Yoshida Hiroshi & Tōshi, Kawase Hasui, and others are beautiful, with deep, rich colors that were either unavailable to the ukiyo-e artists of old or which are simply more vibrant as a result of having not yet faded over time. Yes, their use of line and form betrays strong Western influence – a more realistic, less stylistic, aesthetic that perhaps at first glance does not look distinctly Japanese, and does not immediately betray the genre’s ukiyo-e roots.
「浅草寺 年乃市」 (“New Year’s Market at Sensō-ji”) by Kobayashi Kiyochika. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But looking again, the style of many of these works is not all that different from that of Kobayashi Kiyochika, much celebrated as the last ukiyo-e master, whose works bring Meiji Japan alive for us.
Look again, and there is something which feels traditional about the way Hasui represents modern subjects, such as Meiji (Victorian) style bridges and lampposts, or a train running past in the distance, behind an otherwise traditional scene of recently dyed kimono fabric being hung up to dry along the banks of the Kamo River.
“Zodiac Noren” by Clifton Karhu. Museum of Fine Arts: 2007.339. Photo taken myself at the MFA; I apologize for the poor quality.
A work by Clifton Karhu represents another side of shin hanga, another aesthetic or style, heavily inspired by ukiyo-e but decidedly new. Karhu, an American who lived and worked in Japan for much of his life, uses brilliant, saturated colors in representations of traditional Japanese subjects, in a style that I cannot help but say looks cartoonish, but in a good way. This may be a taboo word in the realms of fine art – especially as it pertains to Japan, attitudes towards manga and anime as art or even just as worthwhile pasttimes being complex and controversial – but his bold lines and bright colors bring great vitality and energy to the works, making me smile everytime that I see one. In addition, Karhu produced his woodblock prints in a manner rather true to tradition, further complicating I think the question of whether he can be considered a “Japanese” artist, a shin hanga artist, a spiritual successor to the ukiyo-e masters, even without being ethnically Japanese. I believe he can.
“Old North Church in Boston” by Matsubara Naoko. Museum of Fine Arts: 69.979. Photo taken myself at the MFA; I apologize for the poor quality.
Matsubara Naoko is the flipside of that coin. While Karhu was an American who created vividly colorful depictions of Kyoto in a style reflective of strong traditional ukiyo-e influence, Matsubara is a Japanese who works in monochrome, depicting Boston (among, presumably, other subjects) in a style very much emulating that of the great sōsaku hanga master Munakata Shikō, but with little direct discernable influence from older forms, schools, or styles.
I am excited to be delving into this new world of “new prints” (shin hanga), sōsaku hanga, etc. Strongly connected to and informed by tradition, these 20th century artists represent not a break from the uniquely Japanese forms of old, but a continuation and development in that tradition. They produce works distinctively modern, and informed by Western traditions, forms, styles, and methods, which remain nevertheless distinctively Japanese, representing an important stage or genre within the broad scope, the colorful story, of Japanese art history.
“Visions of Kyoto” runs through May 31; “Celebrating Kyoto” is up until September 7.
The Hasui and Yoshida images are from the MFA’s online collections database. I make claims of copyright ownership of these images; no intention to infringe on the museum’s claims is intended. I gain no commercial benefit from use of these images in this pseudo-journalistic, art critic context.