Looking East at the Asian Art Museum

monet the water lily pond
I visited Looking East a couple of months ago, soon after it opened. It is both a celebration of japonisme in all its guises, and an opportunity to see some real treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Such was the general richness and variety, I found myself struggling to marshal my thoughts, and decided to try for a return visit.

I made it back last weekend, but with a small person in tow, so we confined ourselves to a close study of one picture, which is featured on all the publicity material – The Water Lily Pond by Monet. We looked at the Japanese bridge, the willow tree, the reflections on the water, the effects of light and dark, and so on. It was very targeted viewing, but enjoyable. I confess I wasn’t thinking too hard about what Japanese art contributed to Monet’s aesthetic.

However, I did start to think harder about the premise of the exhibition. The secondary title of the show is “How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western artists”. The layout of the exhibition seeks to achieve exactly this aim, grouping together pictures by Japanese and Western artists that look similar and treat similar themes, be it Japanese bridges or horse racing. In other words, a mechanistic approach to something that is often very nebulous. Reading the labels seemed to ignite my inner rebel. Were those scenes of Parisian life really taking their cue from Japanese ukiyo-e?

I have a copy of the catalogue (thanks to my lovely sister) and I will be reading it, because I think it is easier, and maybe more fruitful, to explore connections of this sort in an essay format. I absolutely recommend the exhibition because it is full of wonderful things, no question. However, I think those wonderful things outshine and transcend the format in which they are presented, so do just go along and enjoy the show.

Looking East: How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western Artists
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
30 October 2015 to 7 February 2016

Above: Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1900. Oil on canvas. Height 90.2cm; width 92.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/the-water-lily-pond-33697.

Talk by Karen Fraser: Looking West


print by utagawa kunihisa americans
This was a talk that I attended in the crazy days before Christmas, and it’s only now that I’m catching up with myself. Dr Karen Fraser (Santa Clara University) spoke at the Asian Art Museum about western influences in Japan, in the half-century from around 1860 to 1910. What follows is my brief summary of what I learnt.

Japan was essentially closed off until the interventions of Commodore Perry in the 1850s, which forced the opening of the country to the west and prompted widespread (though as yet not very informed) interest in foreign people and foreign ideas. This Dr Fraser illustrated with woodblock prints called yokohama-e, which embraced this exotic new subject matter. Among the Five Nations, for instance, is a work by Utagawa Kunihisa that purports to show natives of France, Russia and America, but with a strong element of caricature.

The start of the Meiji period in 1868 heralded a new phase in the perception of the west. There was a concerted effort to incorporate western elements into Japanese culture. For instance, the Meiji emperor was photographed for his formal portrait in Japanese dress, but then again in western dress, symbolizing the modernisation of Japan. This transition was known as bunmei kaika (“civilisation and enlightenment”). Prints of this period represent technologies or activities that derive from the west, such as the railways or horse racing events.

By the 1880s, Japanese artists were adopting practices from western art, such as oil painting, which enables techniques such as lighting, shading and chiaroscuro not readily achieved in traditional Japanese pigments. Takahashi Yuichi painted a portrait of the Meiji emperor in 1880, and he was pretty much self-taught. A decade on, artists such as Kuroda Seiki had travelled to Paris to study. His painting Fields at Grez (1890) suggests the plein air ethos of the Impressionists, while his nude Morning Toilette (1893) caused a major reaction when it was shown in Japan in 1895.

Looking West: Visual Culture in Japan since 1850
Talk by Karen Fraser, at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
12 December 2015

The talk was in conjunction with the exhibition Looking East, currently on show at the Asian Art Museum. A recording of the talk is available online here.

Above: Utagawa Kunihisa, Americans (Amerikajin) from the series Among the Five Nations (Gokakoku no uchi), 1861. Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper. Height 38.1 cm; width 25.4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at www.mfa.org/collections.

Below: Kuroda Seiki, Fields at Grez, 1890. Oil on canvas. Tokyo National Museum. Image at http://www.tobunken.go.jp/materials/kuroda_works/116970.html.

painting by kuroda seiki fields at grez

Yoshida Hiroshi prints at the Ashmolean

yoshida window in fatehpur sikri
Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) was a leading figure in Japan’s Shin Hanga (New Print) movement, seeking to revive traditional ukiyo-e printing by combining Japanese techniques with Western elements. From November 1930, he spent four months travelling in India and South East Asia. Following his return, he produced 32 woodblock prints of scenes from his trip.

This magical exhibition presents a selection of images from Indian sites, mainly architecture and landscapes. There is a strong emphasis on the technical brilliance of Yoshida’s printmaking.  For instance, A Window in Fatehpur Sikri show a sepia-toned interior with three figures sitting near a carved lattice window. For this one scene, Yoshida used five woodblocks for the lattice; four nezumi-ban (grey blocks) to deepen the shadow tones; and four wari-ban (split blocks with tapered ends) for the reflections on the marble floor.

His landscape prints are equally captivating. In the Kinchinjanga series, he follows Hokusai and Hiroshige in presenting views of a mountain in different conditions – morning, afternoon and evening. He uses the same set of woodblocks for each print but varies the image with different colours and techniques, a process called betsu-zuri (separate printing). The result is a dream-like display of colour and light effects.

Yoshida Hiroshi: A Japanese Artist in India
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
9 June to 13 September 2015

Above: Yoshida Hiroshi, A Window in Fatehpur Sikri, 1931. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 40.1cm; width 27.6cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at http://www.mfa.org/collections. [Ashmolean image not online at time of writing.]

Below: Yoshida Hiroshi, Kinchinjanga – Afternoon, 1931. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 27.6cm; width 39.8cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at http://www.mfa.org/collections. [Ashmolean image not online at time of writing.]

yoshida kinchinjanga

Chinese chicks for Easter

an lin chicks

These lively chicks are the work of An Lin (b. 1930), an artist from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. She studied at the Sichuan Art Academy and is a member of the Chinese Artists’ Association. This is a shuiyin print – a woodcut printed in water-soluble ink.

I saw this print one year ago at the Ashmolean Museum, where it was included in their exhibition Michael Sullivan: A Life of Art and Friendship. Michael Sullivan received this work as a gift from the artist in Hangzhou in 1980.

I love how the delicate shading on the little birds conveys a sense of their lightness and fluffiness. The contrast between the pale tops of their heads and the much darker backdrop makes the image all the more vivid, and hints at their vulnerability. Still, the image has a very dynamic quality. You can imagine their quick movements and soft sounds – especially the characterful trio in the upper-left section, who seem to be interacting in a most human fashion.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Permanent collection

This work is currently in the research collection but can be viewed online.

Above: An Lin, Chicks, 1980. Colour woodcut print on paper. Height 27.8cm; width 32.5 cm. Ashmolean Museum. Image: Ashmolean Museum, at http://jameelcentre.ashmolean.org/object/LI2022.423.

Books: Shanghai Art of the City

pic cover shanghai

This lavish hardback gives a fascinating account of Shanghai’s visual culture in the 20th century, starting with the China Trade paintings of the 1850s (topographical works that showed the premises of important companies) and finishing with video material from the early 2000s. Published to accompany the 2010 exhibition “Shanghai” at the Asian Art Museum, it still works very well as a stand-alone guide.

This was of course a hugely turbulent phase in Shanghai’s history. The Japanese occupied the city during the Sino-Japanese war, first the Chinese sector in 1937, then the foreign concessions in 1941. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai artists were not initially too much affected. However, this changed as the authorities relocated art academies away from Shanghai in the early 1950s, and later instigated the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with devastating effects on artists and artistic practice.

The book presents material from every decade and in a variety of media: traditional ink painting, Western-inspired painting by artists such as Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Xu Beihong (1895-1953), propaganda posters, woodcuts and more.

I especially enjoyed the selections from the 1930s, including photographs of 1930s buildings, Shanghai Deco furniture, wool rugs, magazine covers and posters of 1930s beauties. I was also curious to read up on contemporary artists featured in the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Post Pop” show, such as Zhou Tiehai (b. 1966) and Liu Dahong (b. 1962).

I felt that the essays varied somewhat in quality, and that there was repetition of the historical material – perhaps unavoidable with art that is politically charged. But this volume is bursting with pictures and definitely recommended.

Shanghai Art of the City
Michael Knight & Dany Chan, 2010.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 284 pp.

This book was received as a gift from family!

Travels in California, part 6: Xu Bing at LACMA

brush xu bing

We had limited time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) so our visit was short but very sweet – in particular, this show by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing (b. 1955), which was the first thing we saw. I covered the Xu Bing show at the Ashmolean in 2013, so it was fascinating to spend more time in front of his work and to see it in a different presentation.

As before, there was a strong emphasis on the written word and actions related to it – writing, printing, calligraphy. For instance, a series of very striking images based on the hand holding the brush, in two sets of woodblock prints, Holding the Brush and Softening the Brush.

But where the Ashmolean focused on works on paper, LACMA offers a more diverse body of work. There is a piece from his Silkwork Book series, for which he raised live silkworms and made them spin silk over books instead of into cocoons. The book in question is a model book of calligraphy by famous scholar Yan Zhengqing (709-785).

The installation Backbone, taking up most of one wall, builds a text from words found in 19th century tobacco stencils, printed on cigarette paper. In an interesting collaboration, the words were used by René Balcer to create a free-verse blues poem, honouring the African American women who worked in the tobacco industry. You listen to one while viewing the other.

Perhaps the most spell-binding work here is The Character of Characters, an animation that portrays the evolution and simplification of Chinese characters, explored in tandem with social and political developments in China itself.

This brings to an end my series of posts on the fabulous Asian art that I saw in California.  If you are interested, do take a look at my earlier posts on three exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco – Seduction, The Printer’s Eye, and Tradition on Fire.  There are also my before and after posts on the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco, and my post on surprise Korean ceramics where I least expected to see them.

The Language of Xu Bing
LACMA, Los Angeles, CA
20 December 2014 to 26 July 2015

You can view part of the animation on YouTube.

Above: Xu Bing, detail from Holding the Brush, 1996. Woodblock print. The Carolyn Hsu & René Balcer Collection. Image at http://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/xu-bing.

Travels in California, part 2: The Printer’s Eye at the Asian Art Museum

hunting for fireflies
Showing alongside “Seduction” at the Asian Art Museum is “The Printer’s Eye”, a selection of Japanese woodblock prints of the “floating world”. These prints were the mass-market equivalent of the more deluxe paintings on view in the first exhibition.

However, many of those displayed are rare examples of particular stages in the development of woodblock printing in colour. For instance, full colour printing in the form of brocade pictures (nishiki-e) is seen in several works by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770), such as Hunting for Fireflies, from the 1760s. Yet the triptych Picking Tea in Uji by Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), with its unusual green colouring, illustrates the use of a limited palette from an experimental phase in the 1780s.

The exhibition also draws out the different sizing and formats of the paper on which the images were printed. These include the tantalizing pillar picture (hashira-e), as in Woman Holding an Umbrella by Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785), from the 1740s. She wears tortoiseshell hair ornaments and an ivy-patterned raincoat, which might be derived from a Portuguese design. As in “Seduction”, themes of fashion and costume are very much to the fore in this enticing show.

The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
20 February to 10 May 2015

Above: Suzuki Harunobu, Hunting for Fireflies, 1767-8. Woodblock print; ink and colours on paper. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Image at http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/printers-eye.

Below: Kubo Shunman, Picking Tea in Uji, late 1780s. Woodblock print, one of a set of three; ink and colours on paper. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Image at http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/printers-eye.

picking tea in uji
Below: Ishikawa Toyonobu, Woman Holding an Umbrella, approx. 1740s. Woodblock print; ink with hand-applied colour on paper. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Image at http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/printers-eye.

woman holding an umbrella

Hiroshige prints at the Ashmolean

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 13.51.26

A very happy 2015 to all readers!

A selection of prints by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) is on show at the Ashmolean this month and next. The display is not large but it encourages you to really focus in on the images and admire the craftmanship that defines his work. For instance, the use of Prussian blue pigment, newly available from the west; the use of a printing technique called bokashi, that enables subtle gradations of colour; the use of the grain of the woodblock to create a visible texturing of the print.

The Tōkaidō was the major highway that linked Edo and Kyoto. Hiroshige’s series of prints depicting scenes from this route was published in 1834 and proved immensely popular. I have a particular fondness for the snowy landscapes, represented here by Evening Snow at Kanbara and Clear Weather after Snow at Kameyama (both 1833-34).

Hiroshige’s Japan: Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
9 December 2014 to 15 February 2015

An online version of this exhibition is anticipated but not yet available.

Above: Utagawa Hiroshige, Evening Snow at Kanbara, 1833-34. From the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Honolulu Museum of Art; image at http://honolulumuseum.org/art/exhibitions/12707-hiroshige_artists_journey. [Ashmolean version not online at time of writing.]

Below: Utagawa Hiroshige, Clear Weather after Snow at Kameyama, 1833-34. From the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art; image at http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/57045. [Ashmolean version not online at time of writing.]

hiroshige clear weather v3

Modern Chinese art from the Sullivan collection

Abstraction 1989
As ever, I enjoyed the Ashmolean’s latest selection of modern Chinese art. This display commemorates the art historian Michael Sullivan, who died last year and bequeathed to the museum the collection of over 400 works that he had built with his wife Khoan.

Zhang Daqian is well-represented, from his Figure of a Lady Reading a Poem (1935), to flower paintings such as Old Plum Branch with Young Shoots (1965) and Lotus (1978), to landscapes such as Blue and Green Landscape (1975) and River Landscape (1975).

Numerous other artists make an appearance.  I was happy to spot Abstraction (1989) by Zhao Wuji (Zao Wou-Ki), whose dreamy work I first encountered at ART14 London.  A more historical perspective emerges in Lu Sibai’s Street in Chongqing after Japanese Bombing, the first work to enter the collection, or Lui Shou-Kwan’s Houses and Squatters’ Huts on Hong Kong (1967).

Michael Sullivan: A Life of Art and Friendship
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
11 March to 14 September 2014

There is an online version of the exhibition.

Above: Zhao Wuji (Zao Wou-Ki), Abstraction, 1989. Lithograph. Height 21.3cm; width 15.8cm. Ashmolean Museum. Image: http://jameelcentre.ashmolean.org/collection/8/object/15074.

Shunga at the British Museum


The recent Shunga exhibition, which I managed to see in its last week, was almost a victim of its own success.  The galleries were utterly packed, as though we had all come to see a display of Leonardo drawings, and the show was sold out for the rest of the day.  As I pored over print after print of sex acts – generally very graphic, the organs very big and very prominent – I found myself all too conscious of the mass of visitors, and the sense that this was very clearly not how the images were meant to be viewed.  That said, I did enjoy discovering shunga by artists that I knew from their less explicit work: Hishikawa Moronobu, Suzuki Harunobu, Torii Kiyonaga.  I should also commend the labeling: by translating the sometimes hilarious Japanese inscriptions, the curators conveyed the importance of the written word in constructing the erotic experience.

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese Art
British Museum, London
3 October 2013 to 5 January 2014 (now closed)

Above: Katsukawa Shuncho, Twelfth Month from Koshoku sue juniko (Erotic Illustrations for the Twelve Months), c. 1788 (detail). Colour woodblock print. Height c. 25.8; width c. 37.3 cm. International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, Kyoto. Image at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2013/shunga/about.aspx#4. The young man says, “If I stay on until morning, my old man will give me an earful. Besides, tomorrow is year-end cleaning.” The courtesan says, “Come on, stop joking about and put it in quick. It’s snowing even more, so stay on tomorrow.”