Imagine a mash-up of an Ansel Adams photograph with a Japanese woodblock print and you begin to visualize Hiroshi Yoshida’s Yosemite prints. The Toledo Museum of Art’s (TMA) Japanese print exhibition, Fresh Impressions, features Yoshida’s masterpieces and nearly 350 initially counterintuitive yet strikingly beautiful East / West juxtapositions. In Yoshida’s work alone, we find such varied subjects as Niagara Falls, the Greek Acropolis, the Swiss Alps, Venice and the Sphinx. This show reveals that while the bold colors and lucid design of Japanese prints seduced Western artists of the 19th Century, in turn, the West influenced many Japanese artists, setting into motion a vibrant two-way cultural feedback-loop.
The title Fresh Impressions originates from the phrase shin hanga, or “new prints.” Japanese publisher Watanabe Shozaburo coined the term in reference to the prints of a handful of early 20th century Japanese artists who began a renaissance of the traditional ukiyo-e woodblock print – think Hokusai’s The Wave, of about a century before. These shin hanga prints generally use crisply defined contours, uniform planes of vivid color, and abnormal cropping to evoke an unequivocally flat world.
This show and the accompanying catalog celebrates the TMA’s seminal 1930 exhibition Modern Japanese Prints, which displayed the work of ten shin hanga artists. Its exhibition catalog became the authoritative scholarly source on the shin hanga until the advent of the internet. In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Edward Heath contacted the TMA for more information about images within the catalog. Fresh Impressions once again brings together the same ten artists and 343 prints featured in the original show.
Unlike ukiyo-e woodblock artists, the shin hanga artists often reveal an interest in Western styles and content. Yoshida’s multi-part Inland Sea Series envelopes the same scene in six variations of subtly changing atmospheric perspective and lighting, recalling Monet’s Haystacks. Significantly, japonisme famously influenced Monet. Among the many portraits of the emphatically contorted faces of kabuki actors, we find actors assuming roles from Western plays, such as Yamamura Toyonari’s Morita Kan’ya XIII as Jean Valjean, a principal character of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Heroshi Yoshida’s prints comprise nearly half of the works on display, as in the original 1930 show. Yoshida’s work in particular betrays a strong interest in Western art. Many of his prints show deep, atmospheric perspective and subtle gradations of color. He pushes the mountains of his Yosemite landscapes back into deep, recessed space, a trait not characteristic of the ukiyo-e tradition. His print of Niagara Falls wonderfully captures the effervescent mist rising into the atmosphere, as do his many and varied depictions of the Matterhorn and the Japan Alps.
In contrast, the prints of Kawase Hasui seem to follow more closely the formula of the traditional ukiyo-e artists of the previous century. In The Shinagawa Offing, the distant Tokyo skyline seems to press against the plane of the picture, dissolving any distinction between background and foreground. Hasui always made sharply delineated contours and worked with a surprisingly broad range of color. His subdued ultramarine blues recall a Whistler seascape, yet some of his prints ripple with energetic neon-greens and hot-pinks, which almost seem to anticipate the color palate of the psychedelic Sixties.
An absolutely beautiful catalog accompanies the show. Indeed, it had the authoritative 1930 catalog to stand up to. Four short and accessible essays introduce the reader to the shin-hanga and to the significance of the 1930 show. The rest of the book features large color reproductions of all the 343 prints, including a nice multi-page fold-out spread of Yoshida’s Inland Sea Series.
Fresh Impressions reveals the surprising extent of the fertile two-way cultural dialogue between East and West. Furthermore, it reminds the viewer to not treat any visual culture as a monolith. Even the shin hanga group contains a diverse array of distinctive personalized styles. The free show runs until January 1, 2013. Do not miss it or you may have to wait another century before the TMA displays its collection of shin hanga prints in their entirety.