Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints

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A new exhibition, “Edo Pop,” reveals the powerful allure of ukiyo-e prints through the MIA’s extensive collection. A related show, “Bonjour Japon,” highlights French art inspired by these Japanese prints.

Minneapolis, MN, August 3, 2011—The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) is home to one of the world’s great collections of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) prints. The museum’s new exhibition, “Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints,” opening October 30, 2011, and running through January 8, 2012, features more than 160 masterworks that reveal the great breadth of ukiyo-e production as well as the individual artistry of about 40 artists. Organized thematically, the exhibition provides a kaleidoscopic view of popular culture in pre-modern Japan.

“Pop Art” usually describes the artistic movement of the 1950s, when artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein gleaned inspiration from contemporary urban life, mass-produced consumer products, and slick advertising. Picturing film stars and comic-book heroes in bright colors and crisp forms, Pop Art referred largely to the popular culture from which the movement emerged.

“Pop” also aptly describes ukiyo-e produced in Japan during the Edo period (1615–1868), which reflected the tastes and proclivities of a rising class of urban commoners, known as chonin. Chnin merchants and artists grew rich providing goods and services to the inhabitants of Japan’s rapidly growing cities. Strict stratification of Japanese society, however, prevented prosperous townspeople from advancing socially despite their wealth. As a result, many pursued hedonistic pleasures and pastimes.

Most ukiyo-e artists created both paintings and designs for woodblock prints, depicting the pleasures and pastimes associated with the floating world. Fine paintings commanded high prices, but mass-produced woodblock prints were within the reach of almost everyone. Low cost alone, however, did not account for the immense popularity of ukiyo-e prints. The subversive subject matter made them irresistibly intriguing. Images of women, especially entertainers and the denizens of the licensed (and unlicensed) brothels, were purchased as reminders of their sex appeal and fashionable style. Depictions of actors were procured by devotees of Kabuki, the robust and lowbrow theater.

Other figural themes included sumo wrestlers, dandies and male prostitutes, ghosts and demons, mythological and legendary heroes, and ordinary townspeople engaged in seasonal pastimes. Consumer products were featured in these images, including the latest fashions and textiles, makeup, elegant pipes, lacquers, ceramics, clocks, rare plants and flowers, and even pets. Landscapes, too, became an important sub-genre, first in the form of illustrated guidebooks in the 18th century and then as single-sheet prints in the 19th. Interest in landscapes reflected the government’s loosening of restrictions on travel, prompting city dwellers to take to the road in search of adventure and exotic pleasures.

Ukiyo-e masters evolved a distinctive style that featured fluid yet descriptive outlines, novel vantage points, bold areas of clear color unimpeded by chiaroscuro, and audacious compositions with off-center subjects and dramatic cropping. Meanwhile, block carvers and printers developed innovative printing techniques. Consequently, ukiyo-e images were fresh and contemporary, appealing to the popular tastes of the townspeople.

“Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints” also features works by contemporary artists inspired by ukiyo-e and the social and conceptual underpinnings that inform them. Iona Roseal Brown, based in Washington, D.C., sees parallels between hip-hop culture and the floating world. Graffiti artist Gajin Fujita portrays East Los Angeles gang members as Japanese warriors against a backdrop of heavily tagged walls. Nagano-based artist Tabaimo focuses on notions of transience and estrangement in her animated video titled “Hanabi-ra” (Flower Petal), which appropriates imagery from ukiyo-e prints. These works demonstrate that ukiyo-e remains a vital artistic force, as relevant today as when it was created by Japan’s pre-modern Pop artists.

The exhibition is curated by Matthew Welch, Ph.D., the MIA’s deputy director and chief curator, and curator of Japanese and Korean art. The museum has nearly 3,000 ukiyo-e prints, the best of which are featured in the catalogue, Worldly Pleasures, Earthly Delights: Japanese Prints fro the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minneapolis: 2011), which accompanies the exhibition.

BONJOUR JAPON: A Parisian Love Affair with Japanese Art
Opening October 1, 2011

“Bonjour Japon: A Parisian Love Affair with Japanese Art” examines the infatuation with Japanese art among French artists during the last half of the 19th century. These artists did not simply mimic Japanese art, but confirmed ideas that were percolating in the vibrant artistic environment in Paris at the time.

Imported ukiyo-e woodblock prints, screens, scrolls, ceramics, and metalwork from Japan revealed an aesthetic that was exceedingly different from the prevailing European taste for academic art. Parisian artists were intrigued by the Japanese use of asymmetrical compositions, bird’s-eye views, flat colors, bold patterns and outlines, and scenes from nature and everyday life, and incorporated these ideas into their own art. Japanese art was exotic, fascinating, and even a bit forbidden.

Japan had been isolated for more than 200 years. When opened to international trade in 1858, art began to appear on the market in Paris. Enthusiasm for all things Japanese peaked by the 1880s. By the end of the century, the influence of Japanese art on European artists was evident in their prints, paintings, decorative objects, and fashion.

Impressionist and postimpressionist artists, such as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Manet, collected and shared Japanese art. “Bonjour Japon” displays a lively collection of works on paper by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Degas, van Gogh, and others.

A special feature of the exhibition is Henri Rivière’s artist’s book, The Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower. Inspired by the Japanese artist Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, Rivière documented the building of the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris through its eventual incorporation into the landscape of the city. An interactive computer screen will allow visitors to see all 36 of Rivière’s views. This option is also available on the museum’s Web site (artsmia.org) and visitor’s smart phones.

“Bonjour Japon” is curated by Lisa Michaux, Ph.D., former associate curator in the Department of Prints & Drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.