There are few art pieces more instantly recognizable than Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, sometimes just called The Great Wave. It is a piece that appears everywhere, from t-shirts and album covers to Sapporo beer ads, and it is no surprise that many college students often choose to hang it upon their dorm room walls. There is something undeniably compelling about its sharp and dynamic curves that display the power in the suspenseful scene for the viewer. For centuries, Japanese printmaking has been an art form with rich graphic symbolism and unique depictions of both natural phenomena and human subjects. The Clark Art Institute’s new exhibit, “Japanese Impressions,” brings the Sterling and Francine Clark’s permanent collection of Japanese prints to the forefront, with art created by three different generations of printmakers whose works span over a century, from the 1830s to the 1970s.
First introduced to Japan by Chinese Buddhist temples around the eighth century, woodblock printing became a defining art form of Japanese history. Woodblock-printed scrolls were disseminated throughout Japan over time, particularly in the form of Buddhist texts in temples all over Japan commissioned by Empress Kōken in 764. Over time, Japanese artists developed the art of woodblock printing into a form distinctly their own, known as the ukiyo-e tradition. Ukiyo-e, which translates to “images from the floating world,” captures scenes of Japanese life, including beautiful actors, sumo wrestlers and sweeping landscapes. Two artists in particular rose to prominence for their ukiyo-e printmaking in the 19th century: Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige.
Hokusai, creator of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, has several pieces in the “Japanese Impressions” exhibit that depict scenes from the natural world. With his classic sharp and beautiful lines, Hokusai constructs moments of incredible beauty, crafting idyllic mountains, islands and waterfalls with creamy yellows, rich blues and greens. Another famous ukiyo-e artist featured is Hiroshige, who presents landscapes that are both sweeping and intimate. In View from Massaki of Suijin Shrine, Uchigawa Inlet, and Sekiya, from 1857, the viewer peers out at a sparkling bay and mountain range from a round window, both mingling with the outside world and constrained by the structure they look out from. This first wave of art has reverberations in the pieces that follow it, and it is not hard to see why.
The second wave following the ukiyo-e tradition was the shin-hanga movement of the early 20th century. Attempting to revitalize ukiyo-e as an art form, the shin-hanga generation of artists placed similar emphasis upon the traditional ukiyo-e collaborative system, wherein the art was the final product of a collaboration between the artist, carver, printer and publisher. However, shin-hanga was almost directly in contrast to earlier ukiyo-e art in that its consumption was mainly in foreign markets, and its influences were clearly westernized, incorporating different painting techniques and elements of realism. Some incredible shin-hanga artists are included in the “Japanese Impressions” exhibit, including Yoshida Hiroshi and Kawase Hasui.
The setup of the exhibition illustrates the transitions between the various artistic waves and influences that have shifted the art of Japanese woodblock printing over time. The exhibit reveals common themes of isolation and westernization central to many analyses of Japanese history and culture. It is fitting, then, that it closes with the works of Kiyoshi Saitō and Hamada Shōji, whose modern influences put them in a category all their own, marked by an increased emphasis upon individualism and handmade works as opposed to factory-made ones. This final wave is the sōsaku-hanga, or “creative print,” movement, which rose to prominence in the early 1950s. In the face of industrialization, artists of the sōsaku-hanga and Mingei movements sought to champion individualism and individual creations, with handmade ceramic pieces and elegant prints of Buddhist architecture.
From Hashimoto Okiie’s stark Young Girl and Iris to the murky browns and honeyed yellows of Yoshida Hiroshi’s cityscapes, the “Japanese Impressions” exhibition presents a wealth of interpretations of Japanese art, architecture, nature and people. “Japanese Impressions” will stay up until April 2, and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it yet to do so.