The first traveling exhibition of Japanese art ever displayed at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts opens this weekend, providing a window into Japan’s reaction to Western influences in the early 20th century.
In the works of “Seven Masters: 20th-Century Japanese Woodblock Prints,” artists “are still trying to sell old Japan, traditional Japan,” said Andreas Marks, curator of the exhibit. “You look at these landscapes, you don’t have any new buildings on there, you don’t have a railway station. The vast majority of [beauty prints] shows the women in the classic kimono, not in Western dress. … You really want to show the beautiful old Japan.”
Marks — the head of the Japanese and Korean Art Department at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which organized the touring show — chose dozens of works of the art form called “shin hanga,” or “new print.” These are woodblocks, most of them made from about 1905 into the 1950s and 1960s, though the bulk were made before World War II.
The touring exhibition, which runs through April 26, is paired with a second exhibit — works of 17th, 18th and 19th century Japan taken from UMFA’s own collections, most of which hasn’t been put on display in a decade. “Beyond the Divide: Merchant, Artist, Samurai in Edo, Japan,” runs through July 5.
The “shin hanga” movement started, oddly enough, with a European artist in Japan: Friedrich Capelari, an obscure painter from Austria. Capelari went to Japan to exhibit, and tried to emulate the style of the early 19th century artist Katsushika Hokusai (best known for his prints of Mount Fuji, including the iconic image of an ocean wave dwarfing the mountain). Capelari’s work caught the attention of Watanabe Shizaburo, a publisher who saw a market in limited-edition art prints using the classic woodblock printing techniques.
“The story goes that Watanabe actually wanted to work with a Japanese artist, and they all turned him down,” Marks said.
After creating a few woodblock prints with Capelari, Watanabe found a Japanese artist willing to work with him: Hashiguchi Goyo. Goyo is one of seven artists spotlighted in Marks’ curation, each of them reflecting a style or discipline particular to the “shin hanga” movement.
Goyo, who was older than Watanabe and perhaps believed the publisher didn’t give the artist the deference his age should have bestowed on him according to Japanese tradition, made just one print for Watanabe, then struck out on his own. Watanabe went on to find younger artists more willing to do his bidding, either from a painter’s proteges or students from the Tokyo University of Art.
Watanabe took the techniques used by Hokusai and earlier woodblock artists, in which woodblocks were carved to make many prints of the same work — with a different block for each color used. The “Beyond the Divide” exhibit displays some prints of that time, called the Edo era (for the ancient name of the capital city now called Tokyo).
They are laid flat in a display case, “to reflect the way the Japanese of the Edo period would look at these pieces, that they were beautiful objects, but they would not have the same pride of place as a screen or a painting,” said Luke Kelly, UMFA’s associate curator of collections and antiquities, and curator of the “Beyond the Divide” exhibition.
The Edo prints tended to be mass-produced; Kelly said it took at least 600 copies sold for a publisher to break even, and 20,000 copies would make a print a best seller.
On the other hand, an innovation of the “shin hanga” movement, Marks said, was the idea of limited editions — with a run of 200 or 300 high-end prints made for one image. Sometimes, these limited editions would have special features, like backgrounds with pulverized mica to create a shimmering effect, or embossed paper to emulate the texture of fabric.
Like the Edo masters, the “shin hanga” creators divided the labor. The artists sketched the designs, then applied a final sketch to the wood. Then, craftsmen carved the wood and applied the inks.
The most popular prints in Japan fell into three categories, Marks said. “Beauties — beautiful women — sold very well,” Marks said. “Landscapes sell very well. But the major one was actors, kabuki actors.”
Prints of popular kabuki actors would be produced, Marks said, and sold at their theater performances — collected in much the way modern theater fans save playbills.
The kabuki portraits weren’t as popular with Western collectors, Marks said, but the landscapes and beautiful women were.
Little in the exhibit reflects work created during World War II; Marks said many artists were deployed by the Japanese military to create images from the places Japan had occupied, such as Indonesia. The artists came back from the war, and continued working into the 1950s.
By then, “shin hanga” was dying out, Marks said, in favor of a new art movement, “sosaku hanga,” in which an individual artist did all the drawing, carving and ink work.
The accompanying exhibit, “Beyond the Divide,” sets the table for “Seven Masters,” by providing examples of the Japanese art traditions the “shin hanga” crowd emulated.
The eye-catching elements of the companion exhibit are folded screens that served as room dividers in Japanese houses. UMFA doesn’t get them out often, Kelly said, because “they take up a lot of space” and, because they are paintings on paper, “as much as we would love to show them, we have to let them rest.”
Screens were functional, Kelly said, but also decorative. “They would reflect seasons, special events and occasions,” he said.
Two screens in the exhibit depict scenes from “The Tale of Genji,” a 40,000-line poem from the 11th century about an emperor’s son who is demoted to commoner. Screens with “Genji” images were often given as wedding presents, Kelly said.
Besides the screens, the exhibit includes a katana sword from the 1660s and a set of samurai armor — never worn in battle, but with round dents made when the armorer demonstrated the suit could withstand musket fire.
“Beyond the Divide,” Kelly said, is UMFA’s first exhibition of Japanese art in 21 years. “It was a perfect opportunity to pair our collection with this wonderful and unique traveling collection,” he said.
JAPANESE ART AT UMFA
Two exhibitions of Japanese art: “Seven Masters: 20th-Century Japanese Woodblock Prints,” organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and “Beyond the Divide: Merchant, Artist, Samurai in Edo, Japan,” curated internally by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City.
When • “Seven Masters” runs through April 26; “Beyond the Divide” runs through July 5.
Admission • Through April 26: $15.95 for adults; $12.95 for seniors (65 and over) and youth (6 to 18); free for children (5 and under), UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at public Utah universities (with valid ID), Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders, and active duty military families. Also free on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of every month. Admission is $5 after 5 p.m. on all other Wednesdays.
Hours • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Mondays (when the museum is closed); open until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Third Saturday for Families • UMFA’s family program will offer two events linked to the “Seven Masters” exhibit: Relief painting on Feb. 15, and Japanese screens on March 21. The events run from 1 to 4 p.m., and are free to attend.
Open Studio • A look at the four Confucian scholarly arts — music, painting, calligraphy and go (the board game) — in the Emma Eccles Jones Education Center Classroom, Wednesday, April 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. Free.
Movies • Three Japanese films will screen at the Dumke Auditorium at UMFA, curated by the Utah Film Center: The 2015 anime “Miss Hokusai” on April 1, the 1961 samurai classic “Yojimbo” on May 6, and the 1955 feudal classic “Sansho the Bailiff” on June 3. All screenings start at 7 p.m., and are free to attend.