Seeing the spectacular in Ukiyoe: Japanese woodblock prints

Princess Takiyasha Calling Up a Monstrous Skeleton Spectre at the Haunted Old Palace at Sōma, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. | Photo courtesy of West Vancouver Museum

Princess Takiyasha Calling Up a Monstrous Skeleton Spectre at the Haunted Old Palace at Sōma, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. | Photo courtesy of West Vancouver Museum

Spectacular and sophisticated may be the best words to describe Ukiyoe Spectacular, an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at Nikkei National Museum and West Vancouver Museum that will run to March 22 and 23. Ukiyoe, which literally means ‘pictures of the floating world,’ is a genre of woodblock prints and paintings produced in Japan in the 1800s.

Ukiyoe is commonly known for depictions of Japanese landscapes, kabuki actors and courtesans. Ukiyoe Spectacular is an exceptional exhibit in that it focuses on subject matter that has rarely been shown to a North American audience.

The exhibition features over 100 prints by more than 30 artists, with each location featuring a different grouping of prints from the personal collection of Shinichi Inagaki. Originally a graphic designer, Inagaki was drawn to the graphic and often dramatic images of Ukiyoe, and in the 1970s he began collecting prints of less widely known Ukiyoe artists.

“This collection is exceptional for the rarity of the prints and their quality,” says Maiko Behr, Japanese art consultant and translator, who assisted with the development of the exhibition.

Ways of looking

For curator Kiriko Watanabe, the biggest challenge was to make the works accessible for the public.

“I decided to provide extended literaturewith each print. The background information helps the visitor appreciate what is being depicted,” says Watanabe.

She hopes that the textual information encourages the viewer to connect with the print without overwhelming him or her.

In order to enhance the visitor’s understanding of these complex works of art, both galleriesinclude a video installation that illustrates the printmaking process. Additionally, the exhibition is accompanied by a series of lectures and demonstrations, which provide the audience with a better understanding of the historical and cultural references within each print.

Watanabe had to keep her potential audience in mind when installing the exhibition in two galleries.

“I divided them into groupings based on themes,” she says.

The prints at West Vancouver Museum are more visually challenging, with highly creative designs that are based on warrior figures, historical mythologies, and ghost stories. The prints at Nikkei are more family-oriented and associated with education, children’s play and the general public of Edo.

Layers of meaning

While both locations present a particular theme, all of the prints share the quality of being visually and technically sophisticated, and layered with detail, social commentary, playfulness and visual tricks.

“Each work tells something much deeper than what appears on the surface,” says Behr. “We tried to provide a glimpse of the background behind the creation of the prints. Seeing them together as a whole, you see a widespread sense of humour and enjoyment of life during this period.”

Often the title of the print, like Old Woman Who Looks Like an Old Lady by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, cues the viewer to both humour and visual play. When examined closely, this print reveals that the woman is composed of multiple bodies: the pattern of her hair and body are hunched people wearing kimono and her eyebrows are scythes.

A Human Textile Pattern to Stop You from Yawning by UtagawaIkukatsu engages with a similar playfulness and invites the viewer to count the number of scantily clad men in the print. Watanabe’s curatorial note, which accompanies the piece, points out that the titlesuggests that counting the men will keep the viewer from falling asleep.

Both Behr and Watanabe are very enthusiastic about Ukiyoe Spectacular and the bizarre, funny, and often surprising details that are waiting to bediscovered by the viewer.

“I was personally excited when I saw these prints, and the more I saw, the more excited I was,” says Watanabe. “Visitors who are focused at looking at the prints experience a personal ‘wow’ moment. The prints have the power to give a moment of enlightenment.”

Until March 22 at West
Vancouver Museum

Until March 23 at
Nikkei National Museum