Monday, August 24, 2009

Pictures of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e

Why have I resisted looking at Japanese prints? The fact that I have daughters from Asia should be enough reason to at least educate myself, but I always seem to be stuck in Western art from about 1870 on. Kind of limiting. Reading about Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the others, you are constantly reminded of the influence Japanese printmakers had on their art --- the lack of depth and volume, the use of bold color, and the liberties taken with perspective. So, it was time. I started with just two, Hokusai and Hiroshige.

After just a little reading it's getting easier to see the difference in the way they approach ukiyo-e, woodcut printmaking. Above is Hokusai's Red Fuji -- he is not at all interested in illustrating a motif from nature, but intent on creating a composition that's been abstracted and stylized from the landscape. Apparently he had a sense of humor: one story has it that while participating in a brush painting contest before the shogun, Hokusai painted a long blue curve the piece of paper. Then he ran across the paper, chasing a chicken whose feet had been dipped in red paint. He explained to the shogun that he had depicted the Tatsuka River, with red maple leaves floating in it. He won.

Hiroshige, (who was up and coming in the mid-1800s as Hokusai was reaching old age), is described as a "lyrical artist" -- whenever I see that adjective I scratch my head. . .what is that supposed to mean? It seems to have something to do with his ability to create a mood. Although the places he depicts are recognizable to anyone who's been there, he has omitted some details in his effort to evoke an emotional response. I love this one, succinctly called A
Sudden Shower on the Ohashi Bridge and Atake.

The horizon tilts, the rain is a series of stylized cross-hatches, and the people seem to have forgotten their pants. Well, I guess they're in Japanese attire circa 1857.

I just came across the book, Contemporary Printmaking in the Northwest by Lois Allan, and feel inspired enough to find a class. It seems that it's often hard to know when you are trying new approaches in a sensible effort to enrich your background and uncover new ways of working and when you are just traveling on a side spur that will not ultimately take you anywhere you want to go. How can you know?

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