- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Viewers entering “Ukiyo-E: From the Collection of Kawasaki Isago no Sato” may feel they’re visiting a strange world of semidarkness through which images of grimacing Kabuki theater actors and sensual courtesans peer.

This exhibit of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings aims to present a minisurvey of the intriguing Edo Period (1603-1868). In this era, Japan began to mass-produce art in its capital of Edo (now Tokyo) to meet the demand of the rising commoner, merchant and artisan classes for affordable — as well as sensational and sexy — art.

Unfortunately, visitors to this two-part show (Part 1 closes Tuesday; Part 2 runs Friday through July 12) at the Japan Information and Culture Center, a branch of the Embassy of Japan, will find it difficult to see the show’s 253 prints and paintings. Because the center didn’t use a lighting professional, the lighting is much too dim for illuminating Japanese prints.

Although the exhibit organizers regard the Isago no Sato Collection, a museum in Kawasaki, Japan, as one of the country’s most distinguished, Westerners have come to expect better print quality than seen here. Nonetheless, it’s still an interesting, although uneven, collection that boasts works by some of the greatest ukiyo-e artists, including Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige and Suzuki Harunobu. The collection grew from the passion of Fumio Saito, 77, a high-level government official in Kawasaki. He amassed an amazing 3,000 prints during the past 40 years.

One of the exhibit’s rarities is Utamaro’s “Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara” series in Part 2, which depicts a sequence of time in Edo’s pleasure district. Aside from its interesting narrative, the series demonstrates the Japanese love of expressive line, intricate patterning and subtle colorings.

Another rarity is Torii Kiyonaga’s “Interior of a Women’s Bath House” (Part 1), probably one of three that survive. Also set in the pleasure district of prostitutes and theaters, the woodcut “sings” through its undulating lines and rhythmic patterning.

“Interior” also demonstrates, incidentally, ukiyo-e’s influence on 19th-century French painters such as Edgar Degas. According to the late Japanese art scholar Penelope Mason, Degas owned a copy of this print, which hung in his bedroom.

Woodblock prints such as the Utamaro and Kiyonaga testify to the lusty and robust tastes of the era’s newly prosperous Edo classes, who couldn’t afford the expensive, one-of-a-kind Kano School paintings. The thousands of ukiyo-e prints produced provided good, cheap art.

At first, black-and-white prints like those by Hishikawa Moronobu, who founded the ukiyo-e woodblock school in the 17th century, documented townspeople wandering through Edo. The world of the theater was the most popular, however.

Artists also were drawn to beautiful — or what they perceived as beautiful — courtesans like the one printed by Utagawa Toyokuni I (Part 2). The head is a masklike face, with pouting lips and stylized hairdo that make it appear more designlike than a living, breathing woman.

Of course, the ukiyo-e artists depicted the landscapes around them, as, for example, Hokusai did with his stylized, intensely red Mount Fuji (in Part 2). Several views from Utagawa Hiroshige I’s iconic “From the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” are included in Part 1.

This would have been an enjoyable and educational show if visitors could see it. The Japan Information and Culture Center must learn to present its exhibitions in a more professional manner.

WHAT: “Ukiyo-E: From the Collection of Kawasaki Isago no Sato”

WHERE: Japan Information and Culture Center, 1155 21st St. NW

WHEN: Part 1: through Tuesday; Part 2: Friday through July 12. Hours are 9 a.m. through 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Closed July 4.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/238-6900


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