Japanese Woodblock Prints at The Clark

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), Awa Province: Naruto Whirlpools, from Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces, 1855. Color woodblock print, 14 1/16 x 9 5/8 in. Clark Art Institute. Gift of the Rodbell Family Collection, 2014.16.6

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.) – More than a century of Japanese printing traditions, represented by seventy-three color woodblock prints, will be presented in the Clark Art Institute exhibition Japanese Impressions: Color Woodblock Prints from the Rodbell Family Collection, opening Saturday, December 10. On Sunday, December 11, at 3 pm, an opening lecture by exhibition curator Jay A. Clarke provides an introduction to the exhibition, followed by a conversation with the collector, Adele Rodbell, who has served as a docent at the Clark for nearly forty years.

The exhibition explores the complex and changing relationship among artists, woodblock cutters, and publishers from the ukiyo-e (scenes from the floating world) tradition of the mid-19th century, the shin-hanga (new print) movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and the s?saku-hanga (creative print) movement that began in the 1950s. Japanese Impressions is on view through April 2, 2017.

The exhibition celebrates a 2014 gift to the Clark made by Adele Rodbell, and includes forty-eight prints from the Rodbell Family Collection, as well as works on loan from private collections and prints from the Clark’s permanent collection.

Japanese Impressions includes works by three generations of printmakers working in the Japanese tradition, including Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), It? Shinsui (1898–1972), Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), Yoshida Hiroshi (1867–1950), and Kiyoshi Sait? (1907–1997).

“I am continually amazed by the beauty and technical skill shown in these woodblock prints, which span nearly 150 years. The Clark is fortunate to be able to show these important works, each of which tells its own story of Japanese customs, geography, fashion, and architecture,” said Jay Clarke, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawing and Photographs. “The exhibition allows viewers to immerse themselves in this rich tradition of color printing and to see how, in some ways, it changed dramatically over the generations and yet remained true to an ethos of elegant design and superior production. It is a feast for the eyes.”


The Ukiyo-e Tradition

The first generation of printmakers represented in the exhibition worked in the ukiyo-e tradition. Artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige worked collaboratively with woodcutters, printers, and publishers to create brightly hued woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e color woodblock prints are created by printing different colors on top of each other. Each color is printed from a different carved block of wood; some prints require more than twenty blocks to create an image. These prints are referred to as nishiki-e, or brocade pictures, due to the rich tapestry of colors. Their style was marked by dramatic depictions of space, which included asymmetrical compositions and bird’s-eye viewpoints. Artists chose subjects that ranged from images of fashionable women and actors to landscapes and scenes from literature.

Utagawa Hiroshige was perhaps the most influential Japanese artist of his generation. Famous for landscape views that were based on direct observation, he was known to add or delete people and unattractive elements to construct a composition pleasing to the eye, as seen in his famed print Awa Province: Naruto Whirlpools (1855) from the series Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces.

The Rodbell Family Collection is particularly rich in works from two series of Hiroshige’s landscapes: Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces (1853) and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1857). The first series ushered in the tradition of the vertical landscape composition featuring mountains, waterfalls, bridges, and shrines from Japan’s sixty-six provinces.

One Hundred Famous Views of Edo similarly captured celebrated gardens, temples, and sites in Edo (modern day Tokyo). This famed series became an inspiration for generations of Western artists including Vincent van Gogh and James McNeill Whistler, who admired Hiroshige’s bold use of color, perspective, and cropping. In 1887, Van Gogh made a painted copy after one work from the series on view in the exhibition, Plum Estate, Kameido (1857).

Utagawa Hiroshige was a member of the Utagawa School. Founded by Utagawa Toyohiro, the school’s members included a diverse range of nineteenth-century artists who created more than half of all known surviving ukiyo-e prints. Because ukiyo-e artists typically assumed the name of their teacher, several artists who created prints during the nineteenth century are known as Utagawa. Among the most important of Hiroshige’s students was the artist born as Suzuki Chinpei (1826–1869). Known for his depictions of landscapes and travel such as the luminous Kintai Bridge at Iwakuni in Su? Province, he quickly established himself as a worthy heir to Hiroshige’s legacy. Upon his teacher’s death, Suzuki inherited the Hiroshige name and became known as Utagawa Hiroshige II.

Representations of Kabuki actors and fashionable women have a long tradition in ukiyo-e printmaking. Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864) and Utagawa Kunisada II (1823–1883) were celebrated for their depictions of actors and illustrations of popular genre and literary tales. In the 1890s, Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912) maintained this focus while bringing new types of brightly hued inks to the ukiyo-e tradition. Three prints by Chikanobu, all titled Garden in Spring from the series Ladies’ Etiquette Pictures, exemplify his penchant for depicting women in rich, ornamental kimonos. The tradition was further modified in the 1920s by It? Shinsui (1898–1972) and Torii Kotondo (1900–1976), whose prints featured close-up, intimate views of their models immersed in the modern daily rituals of bathing and applying makeup.


The Shin-hanga Movement

At the turn of the twentieth century, Japan’s heightened interest in Western culture was countered by an increased awareness of the value of many traditional aspects of Japanese culture. The shin-hanga (new print) movement grew out of this sentiment and provided a means for combining traditional printmaking techniques with Western aesthetics. Like the ukiyo-e artists of the prior century, shin-hanga artists worked collaboratively and depicted traditional themes while incorporating Western aesthetic principles of realism and perspective.

Wantanabe Sh?zabur? (1885–1962) was an influential ukiyo-e publisher who helped expand the careers of many Japanese artists in the early twentieth century including shin-hanga artists It? Shinsui and Kawase Hasui (1883–1957). Shinsui’s earliest artistic success, Eight Views of ?mi, depicts various views of a province in Central Japan. The series is based on a long-standing and popular artistic tradition of portraying a number of beautiful or significant scenes of a particular city or region.

One of the most prolific printmakers of the shin-hanga movement, Hasui trained as a painter and was inspired by Shinsui’s Eight Views of ?mi to train as a printmaker. Like many of his peers, Hasui had a strong relationship with Wantanabe Sh?zabur? and worked almost exclusively with him until the artist’s death in 1957. His work was a hybrid of Western-influenced realism and an admiration for Japanese landscape and customs.

Hasui, like other early twentieth-century artists, incorporated contemporary bridges as a motif in landscape prints such as his Evening Shower at Imai Bridge. These towering passageways over Japan’s steep river systems elegantly connected disparate provinces. The motif was favored by the Rodbell family as it served as a symbol of the bridging of their experiences between Japan and the United States.

Yoshida Hiroshi (1867–1950) also began his career as a painter and watercolorist, achieving acclaim in the second half of his career when he became a woodcut artist. Hiroshi’s imagery, style, and technique were a fusion of his Western training and travel, and his admiration for the traditions of ukiyo-e printmaking. Savvy, business-minded and adept at self-promotion, Hiroshi established his own workshop. In a desire to promote national and foreign sales, he signed his prints in both Japanese and English, such as in the print Fujiyama from Gotemba.


Kiyoshi Sait? (Japanese, 1907-1997), Gion in Kyoto B, 1959. Color woodblock print, 17 11/16 x 23 11/16 in. Clark Art Institute. Gift of the Rodbell Family Collection, 2014.16.55

The S?saku-hanga Movement

S?saku-hanga, which translates to “original creative print,” came into prominence in the early 1950s, further evolving the ukiyo-e tradition. Different than both ukiyo-e and shin-hanga, this movement emphasized personal expression by the artist, who not only created the design but also carved the woodblocks and printed the image. In the 1950s, these prints grew in international popularity, possibly due to their range of non-sentimental, post-war subject matter rather than idyllic landscapes. One of the movement’s most important artists was Kiyoshi Sait? (1907–1997), a woodblock artist who worked on large-scale prints. Sait?’s imagery focused on simplified and abstracted representations of Buddhist temple architecture—such as Gion in Kyoto B in which architectural forms appear to melt into one another—and Buddhist clay sculpture images carved into the block in broad shapes and printed in muted, earthy tones.

This emphasis on individuality also influenced the founding of the Mingei Movement—the Japanese equivalent to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Among the founders of Mingei was Sh?ji Hamada (1894–1978), a potter who championed the work of individual craftspeople—those who created utilitarian, modern art while simultaneously embracing the indigenous craft aesthetic that was perceived to be threatened by industrialization. Following the Meiji era (1868–1912), which ushered in a dramatic industrial revolution, Western-type factories began to mass-produce ceramics. Artists like Hamada sought to maintain the tradition of hand-crafted objects. His richly toned glazes and the abstract, vegetal motifs-––as in his rectangular Bottle (c. 1960)––became highly sought-after both in Japan and abroad. Six examples of Hamada’s ceramics lent by the Rodbell Family are included in the exhibition.


About Adele Rodbell

Adele Rodbell has been a volunteer docent at the Clark since 1978. She and her late husband, Donald, lived in Japan from 1969–1972. During this time, Adele took an art history class and became interested in Japanese art, especially prints and ceramics — an interest she pursues to this day. She acquired several prints in Japan, but her passion for the medium continued once she returned to the United States, where she expanded her collection of prints and began collecting glazed stoneware objects.

In 2014, Rodbell donated sixty-three prints from her collection to the Clark, establishing a new area of collecting for the institute.


About the Clark

The Clark Art Institute, located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, is one of a small number of institutions globally that is both an art museum and a center for research, critical discussion, and higher education in the visual arts. Opened in 1955, the Clark houses exceptional European and American paintings and sculpture, extensive collections of master prints and drawings, English silver, and early photography. Acting as convener through its Research and Academic Program, the Clark gathers an international community of scholars to participate in a lively program of conferences, colloquia, and workshops on topics of vital importance to the visual arts. The Clark library, consisting of more than 270,000 volumes, is one of the nation’s premier art history libraries. The Clark also houses and co-sponsors the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art.

The Clark is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $20; free year-round for Clark members, children 18 and younger, and students with valid ID. For more information, visit Clark Art Institute or call 413 458 2303.





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