Yoshu Chikanobu (Japanese, 1838-1912). "Imperial Party Visits the Park at Asukayama," 1888. Color woodcut triptych, 14 5/8 x 28 5/8 in. (36 x 72.8 cm). Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. Photograph by Randy Dodson, image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Japanese Prints in Transition:

From the Floating World to the Modern World

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum is lucky to house one of the most significant museum collections of Japanese prints in the United States — the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Now on display, “Japanese Prints in Transition: From the Floating World to the Modern World” is a beautiful, comprehensive, and well-mounted exhibit that contains nearly 150 woodblock prints from the Achenbach Foundation.

In addition to gaining a new appreciation of the delicate beauty of Japanese woodblock prints, visitors will also learn a bit of Japanese history and sociology since the exhibit highlights the developmental and artistic shifts in Japanese art before and after Japan’s exposure to Western society. Although we learned in school that the opening of Japan began with Commodore Perry’s sailing into (what is now) Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853, the Netherlands had been trading with Japan in the 1840s.

The exhibit arranged chronologically, begins with the 18th-century “floating world” woodblock prints of the Edo period when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. In Edo (now Tokyo), a Japanese city whose population had reached one million by the beginning of the 1700s, there was an alluring pleasure and amusement quarter, replete with teahouses, shops, Kabuki theaters, and brothels known as the “floating world.”

The floating world’s rise to prominence was concurrent with the growth of a new merchant class with money and leisure time, which resulted in new artistic creations such as delicate paintings and textiles for the rich and woodblock prints for the rest. These works spread knowledge of the city’s famous theaters and brothels. Among the popular themes were depictions of beautiful women, kabuki actors, flora and fauna, folk tales, and erotica.

The woodblocks were sold to the mass market, which enjoyed following the styles of the floating world. Despite the low prices at which the woodblock prints were sold, many prints are complex, pristine, and gorgeous, with vibrant colors, as this exhibit illuminates.

For example, the legendary and famous “The Great Wave” (ca. 1830-1832) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is on display with eight other works from his series, “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Aside from the subtle use of perspective in “The Great Wave,” it is the gigantic wave’s brand new, striking synthetic pigment (“Berlin” or “Prussian” blue) that gives this work its power. Because of the piece’s sensitivity to light, “The Great Wave” is rarely shown to the public.

Following the ouster of the shogun in 1868, the Meiji, or “enlightened” emperor, was restored to power, and many Western representatives began to enter Japan. The new government (1868–1912) encouraged print publishers to publish images that presented modern Japan as promoting international trade and military muscle. Woodblocks employed striking red and purple hues using newly imported chemical synthetic dyes. Many subjects were borrowed from Western magazines and newspapers, including industry, fashion, technology, and government.

“Imperial Party Visits the Park at Asukayama,” 1888, by Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912), is an excellent example of Japanese people in Western dress.

Finally, a separate section of the exhibition, “Shunga,” is dedicated to Japanese erotica from the Edo and Meiji periods that depict all facets of sensuality. These images were standard in Japanese life until Western morality marginalized them.

Since the woodblock prints in “Japanese Prints in Transition” are small and detailed, it’s best to come early when the museum is less crowded. The explanatory labels and wall placards are easy to read and understand. The Legion of Honor’s exhibition is fascinating, beautiful, and impressive.

The Legion of Honor Museum (part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) has an extensive collection of ancient, European, decorative, and sculpture, including its well-regarded Rodin galleries. The inspiring Beaux Art–style building, designed by George Applegarth, will be 100 years old this year. Located majestically on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate and the Pacific Ocean, it’s one of the finest sights in San Francisco.

By Emily S. Mendel


© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved

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