at Edo-Tokyo Museum
in the Kiyosumi, Ryogoku area
This event has ended - (2008-02-19 - 2008-04-06)
Although not a household name, for many Hasui Kurume’s exquisite ukiyo-e prints and watercolors are highly influential. Widely known in certain circles his images were celebrated during the wave of “Japonisme” that swept Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century. This succinct exhibition seeks to place him in an historic and cultural context to promote ukiyo-e to a wider audience.
Along with sushi, maikos, cherry blossom and tea utensils, seasons and costumes have come to symbolize ‘Japan’ from an outsider’s perspective. Studying under the famous Kiyokata Kaburaki. Kurume and his fellow ukiyo-e artists (including Shinsui Ito and Shoson Ohara) became part of what was known as the new wave or ‘Shin Hanga’ (New Print) group. The roaring 1920s heralded a love of all things oriental and the work of the group became wildly popular influencing a plethora of European artists such as Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Klimt. Bold black lines, strong design coupled with delicate tonal variation and a fusion of subject and object resonated at a time when artists were redefining the purpose and nature of art. Creative cultural crossbreeding worked both ways, this exhibition contrasts the work of older ukiyo-e artists Hiroshige and Kiyoshika Kobayashi. In comparison, you can see the influence of certain ‘Western’ artistic ideas such as perspective on Kurume’s more modern prints. He fuses a Japanese sensibility with a Western eye.
An important feature of this show is the focus on the process of production. Test prints and initial sketches are displayed alongside the final version allowing viewers a unique opportunity to see the compositional and color choices made by the artist. Ukiyo-e has more in common with film production than painting in the sense that it is dependent on collaboration between the artist, woodcutter and printer. The process is a highly time-consuming one; the film made in the late 1950s that is being shown outside the main room documents the painstaking transformation from initial sketch to final print. Carving and printing can use as many as eight ‘layers’ and at each stage of the work the artist needs to decide the composition and color balance.
Ukiyo-e is a craft. It is also a dying art. What is interesting about this show is the juxtaposition of Kurume’s work as cultural artifact and relevant creative force. The work remains fresh in color and design — it could just as easily be a web page or CD cover. However, the Edo Museum is not an art gallery and as such it highlights the fact that in the end, all art inevitably becomes artifact.