The exhibit “Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900,” is running at the Brooklyn Museum through June 15. It will feature over 90 hand-cut woodblock prints, primarily from the famed Utagawa School of Japanese printmaking.
Okay, I hear you. "Japanese woodblock prints" sounds like one of those art exhibits that you're happy to know is there, but have no intention of visiting. While you're glad that the borough is getting exhibits of this caliber, confirming Brooklyn as a world-class art town, you just don't see what you could learn from Japanese woodblock prints. You're asking yourself, "How could something so far away from the life of the average Brooklynite possibly be relevant and interesting?"
The interests of the Japanese printmakers and their wealthy patrons in fact aren't very different from what we find to be exciting now. Famous entertainers, gorgeous geishas, mystical, exotic locales, all illustrated in lush detail and vibrant color: Japanese print-making, although hundreds of years old, seems to share the same obsession with fame and spectacle that we do today in our entertainment and celebrity-obsessed world.
"Ukiyo-e" prints, which translate to "pictures of the floating world," focused on the urban life of Japan's cities, with – not unlike the focus of many Brooklyn artists – a particular concentration on the glamorous world of the entertainers and celebrities of the day. They date from the isolationist Edo period in which Japan was cut off from the rest of the world and a wealthy merchant class – politically disenfranchised by the shogun class – sought to commission are that celebrated worldly pleasures and their own interests. This "floating world" was a verbal play on the idea of the "sorrowful world" in Buddhism, of the earth with all its temporary pleasures. This was art about what people enjoyed.
Like much of the art that comes out of a modern Brooklyn populated by graphic designers and commercial illustrators, the print-making from this period was not considered high art, but commercial art, advertisements, like posters for theater shows, kabuki theater, sumo contests and brothels. Some of it was loud and adventurous, others sly and erotic.
Yet while mostly commercial, the work is all gorgeous: delicately drawn lines, beautiful bold colors and amazing innovations in the use of space and depth. Eventually, the dynamism of these ads was translated to landscapes and still lifes, with many ukiyo-e artists, such as the famed Hokusai (painter of that wave painting you see everywhere) and Hiroshige creating work for patrons who were more inclined to quiet contemplation.
And, to give the work an added tinge of rebellion and danger, in 1842, a series of government reforms led to the outlawing of pictures of courtesans, geishas and actors, although a black market still thrived.
As unlikely as it sounds, much of the modern art produced in Brooklyn today can be traced to the influence of these Japanese master print-makers. The flatness on the figures – eschewing Western concepts of space and depth – and the bold use of solid color in the prints had an enormous influence upon post-impressionist Western artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. And without these important contributions, it's unlikely that the full-throated abstraction of post-war American art – and the Pop Art reaction to it – would exist. No Van Gogh means no Jackson Pollock. No Jackson Pollock means no Andy Warhol. And without Warhol? Well, there just wouldn't be a Brooklyn art scene at all.
Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900 will run to June 15 in the Robert E. Blum Gallery, on the 1st Floor of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, located at 200 Eastern Parkway.
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