Introductory copy drawn from Weatherspoon Art Museum website.
Early in the twentieth century, during Japan’s rapid Westernization and industrialization, a desire to revive the great Japanese tradition of woodblock prints (known as ukiyo-e) in the context of Japan’s dynamic, modern life gave rise to an art movement known as shin hanga, or the “new print.” Beginning around 1915, a small group of artists mingled the old with the new, creating beautiful, enticing pictures that were reproduced as prints of almost unsurpassed quality.
At UNC Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum, the four-gallery exhibition “Seven Masters: 20th-Century Japanese Woodblock Prints” focuses on seven artists who played a significant role in the development of the shin hanga print, and whose works boldly exemplify the new movement: Hashiguchi Goyō, Kawase Hasui, Yamamura Kōka, Torii Kotondo, Itō Shinsui, Yamakawa Shūhō, and Natori Shunsen. The 75 woodblock prints, on display through Dec. 4, are drawn from the superb collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and feature three themes: Kabuki actors, beautiful women, and landscapes.
Shin hanga prints were made using thick mulberry paper, rich mineral pigments, featured special elements like embossing and mica backgrounds, and emphasized the swirly movement of the rubbing tool, or baren. While 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e prints had been printed by the hundreds—even thousands for the most popular designs—shin hanga prints were produced in limited editions to guarantee exclusivity.
This Friday, Oct. 1, at 4 p.m., the museum hosts a virtual program called “How Do I Look,” where James Anderson, Associate Professor, History, and Chiaki Takagi, Senior Lecturer of Japanese and Asian Studies, will share their perspective on images in the “Seven Masters” exhibition. On Nov. 16 at Nozomi Naoi will give a virtual lecture on images of women seen in shin hanga prints.
Curator of Collections Elaine Gustafson explains more about the works exhibited in the interview below.
What’s the motivation for this extensive exhibition of Asian woodblock prints?
Although the Weatherspoon is known primarily as a museum of modern and contemporary Western art, it does have a collection of approximately 400 Japanese woodblock prints that were gifted to us by a UNCG professor, Lenoir C. Wright. Those prints date from the 18th and 19th century so this exhibition, drawn from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, allows us to illustrate how the genre evolved and changed over time.
Are these prints similar to earlier 19th century ukiyo-e images?
They are similar in terms of themes. In the early 20th century there was a desire to revive the great tradition of ukiyo-e woodblock printing, but also to reflect contemporary life in Japan. Artists were drawn to traditional themes—beautiful women, kabuki actors, and landscapes—but interpreted these themes through the lens of Western influence and the upheaval that Japan was going through as it modernized and became more industrial. Prints created in the first half of the 20th century were limited in edition numbers to guarantee a character of exclusivity. At the same time, the materials used to produce the prints were even more top-quality and skillfully employed.
What connections might UNCG students look for or see?
Many of the images derive from sketches drawn from life. When looking at the images, you can discern that the artist had carefully noted the sitter’s mood and psychology as well as the accuracy of the setting. The bold contour lines, flat areas of color, and succinct details further the narratives in creative ways as well. I also think it’s interesting to look at these images made at the turn of the 20th century and to think about some of the similarities and differences between then and now, and between East and West. Plus, I think CARS students will love the various patterns and fashions included in the images!
Could you describe the role of landscape imagery?
The landscape prints also fuse modernity and tradition. The sites depicted are traditional places that would have attracted all kinds of tourists, but the locations are shown from different or unusual vantage points than in earlier prints. I am astounded by the various ways artists could convey falling snow or driving rain. And, as in the images of women, the landscapes capture the mood and spirit of the sites.
What challenges come up with exhibiting these prints and how have you dealt with them?
The inks used in Japanese woodblock prints are very sensitive to light, so we had to make sure not to light the images too much or directly. We also had the challenge of organizing the exhibition in a coherent way for display in 4 different galleries, on two separate floors. I think we were successful in that visitors can enter any of the galleries and not feel disoriented. We also created a resource area for visitors who might be interested in learning more about Japanese prints or about the speakers who will be presenting programs during the run of the exhibition. Staff at the Jackson Library created a terrific resource page for us that can be found on our website and theirs.
Prints featured above:
Natori Shunsen, The Actor Ichikawa Chūsha VII as Takechi Mitsuhide, 1926, from the series Creative Prints: Collected Portraits by Shunsen. Woodblock print, ink and color on paper with mica and embossing Published by Watanabe Shōzaburō, 14 ⅞ x 10 ⅛ in. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Ellen and Fred Wells, 2002.161.60
Itō Shinsui, Woman Looking at a Mirror, July 1916. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper Published by Watanabe Shōzaburō, 17 ½ x 11 7/16 in. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Ellen and Fred Wells, 2002.161.205
Kawase Hasui, Benten Pond at Shiba, August 1929. Woodblock print, ink and color on paper Published by Kawaguchi Jirō. Carved by Maeda Kentarō. Printed by Komatsu Wasankichi 9 7/16 x 14 5/16 in. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Paul Schweitzer, P.77.28.15