A friend sent me this article from the NY Times, on a Japanese woodcut exhibition. I am posting an excerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article. It is accompanied by a nice slide show.
Fleeting Pleasures of Life in Vibrant Woodcut Prints
The cult of celebrity and the commercialization of art are not unique to the West. In 19th-century Japan kabuki actors and high-priced geishas were idolized by commoners, and the sale of colorful woodcut prints portraying them became a big, competitive business.
In 1842, fearing an erosion of national moral fiber, the government reacted to the mania for kabuki and for ukiyo-e, the paintings and prints that depicted the fleeting pleasures of life in the entertainment sectors of major cities. Laws were created to limit the extravagance of kabuki theater and to prohibit yakusha-e (actor prints) and bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). It was as if the United States had clamped down on Hollywood movies, paparazzi and the tabloids.
Looking at Japanese prints today, you might not realize what a rough-and-tumble commercial world they came out of. Their formal elegance, poetic beauty and technical refinement suggest a more serene, creative environment. So “Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900,” an exhibition of many splendid prints at the Brooklyn Museum, offers a useful and informative corrective.
Organized by Laura Mueller, a doctoral candidate in Japanese art history and a curatorial intern at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the show presents 73 woodblock prints from the Van Vleck collection, a renowned repository of more than 4,000 Japanese prints owned by the Chazen. With 22 more prints from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, the exhibition tells the story of a group of artists that dominated the ukiyo-e print business for much of the 19th century.
It is not a masterpiece show, though there are some terrific works in it. Utagawa Toyokuni’s “Fireworks at Ryogoku Bridge” (1825) is spectacular. On a two-and-a-half-foot square made by conjoining six prints, it depicts yachts loaded with languid geishas passing under a great wooden bridge, on which a crowd has gathered to observe fireworks bursting against the night sky. With its scores of lively people, precisely delineated details and blocky diagonals thrusting every which way, it is a marvel of formal compaction.
Also extraordinary is Toyohara Kunichika’s dramatic wide-angle picture from 1894 of an actor dressed in a sumptuously patterned costume surrounded by vividly colored flames. With a fierce expression on his face, he poses with extended arms; holding a sword in one hand, he prepares to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.
The exhibition’s sole example of the popular erotica called shunga warrants a close look too. Produced in 1851 by Utagawa Kunisada, “An Illustrated Account of Coupled Genji” consists of three lavishly printed volumes, with double-page spreads showing men and women in luxurious robes engaging in sexual intercourse with delightful urgency.
There are many more compelling works in the show, including land- and seascapes by Utagawa Hiroshige, one of the most famous of all ukiyo-e artists. But there are comparatively nondescript works, too. Prints from the 1770s by Utagawa Toyoharu are historically significant because he founded the Utagawa school and because of his innovative use of Western-style deep perspective. But his blandly illustrative works lack the bold, sensuous qualities of prints by his immediate followers Utagawa Toyohiro and Utagawa Toyokuni.