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Gallery Review | Variations of singular print add dimension to collection

Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 08:02

Upon walking into the “Creative Process in Modern Japanese Printmaking” exhibit in the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, a visitor might first be surprised at its compact size. On the walls hang only a small number of works, and the only structural element in the room is a glass case holding a set of books by renowned commercial artist and illustrator Takei Takeo. In this single room however, lies one of the most under-appreciated exhibits in the museum. Lining the walls are modern Japanese prints, woodblock prints from the 20th century that changed the entire perspective of Japanese printmaking. Simple, elegant, surprisingly colorful and vibrant, the collection is a study of both the evolution of Japanese culture and the preservation of an ancient and brilliant art form.

The collection explores the changing face of printmaking as Japan entered the 20th century. The contrasting sides of printmaking — “shin hanga” or new prints and “sosaku hanga” or creative prints — competed as the country moved into a new era. In the 19th century, woodblock prints were used as Japan’s main form of commercial art. As the country progressed other forms took over, leaving audiences to wonder, “What next?”

What resulted from this tension is the focus of the collection. Sosaku hanga emerged as a dominant force in the art scene. Creative prints made, cut and designed by one artist were heralded for their artistry, rather than their simple utilitarian function. Artists were able to use this creative method to explore new themes. This is evident in the collection’s works which focus on everyday scenes and large buildings. The pieces are blatantly modern but also posses clear traces of historical homage. With a healthy dose of 20th century artistic influence from Europe and beyond, the print series is strong and memorable.

Yoshida Hiroshi’s set of six sailboats entitled “Sailboats: Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon, Fog, Evening, and Night” (1926) are all prints made of the same woodblock, then printed with different colors to capture the different points in the day when the artist observed the scene. With rich vibrant hues and a subtle impressionist flare, the set of prints is striking. The glassiness of the water is pristine — this series of slightly altered images could give Monet pause. Arranged beautifully on a wall entirely dedicated to them, the viewer can truly experience the full effect of seeing, through Hiroshi’s eyes, the sun rising and setting on a lone sailboat on the Japanese shore.

Inagaki Tomoo has fun with his work that focuses on cats in a group of prints accurately named “Night Prowl of Cats” (circa 1960). While some series in the exhibit showcase an artist’s ability to transform subtleties in a piece, Tomoo completely revamps his original work. One print shows a series of three alley cats — in the next, the eyes of the cats remain, yet their bodies have morphed into fish. The hungry cats are transformed in a way that is clever yet sophisticated. As with all pieces in the collection, nothing in the artist’s message is obvious. Like peeling back layers of an onion, the viewer must engage with each print individually and then as a collective whole to experience the full drama of the works. In this respect, the series — and the exhibit itself — triumphs. The viewer and the artist are working together to create a mutual experience of understanding and exploration.

This viewing experience ultimately asks the viewer to question preconceived notions about Japanese art and to look at the pieces through a lens both from the past and to the future. Although the collection showcases 20th century Japanese works, it clearly is just as, if not more, relevant today as it was when many of these pieces were first unveiled. Japan has been moving forward in a direction that is bold and dynamic. As the pieces in this collection show, progress is made when attention is paid to the past while still moving forward, with conviction, into the new uncharted terrain of the future.

The exhibition will be on display until Aug. 17. The MFA is open Saturday through Tuesday 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and Wednesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

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