Japanese print show at Legion of Honor is a big wow

Michael Raffety

Oct. 21, 2010

Henri-Riviere, who published his book 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower in 1902. Here Riviere painted The Tower Under Construction, As Seen from the Trocadadero. It echoes a Hokusai print in a book that shows footsteps in the snow and big fat snowflakes.

The Legion of Honor has put together a spectacular exhibit of Japanese prints to run in conjunction with the Post-Impressionst show from the Musee D’Orsay that is showing at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park now through Jan. 18, 2011.

Out of 115 prints, most of them Japanese, but some of the French and a few American ones, only nine are borrowed from private collections, plus one from the Asian Art Museum across town. The rest are from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums (de Young and Legion of Honor) of San Francisco.

This is the second major print show the Legion has mounted this year, the first one being Impressionist Paris: City of Light with photographs of the era and prints by the Impressionist artists themselves. That ran concurrent with the Birth of Impression show of paintings from the Musee D’Orsay at the de Young this spring and summer.

That show was very impressive, but this one will knock you socks off. It is just incredible the number and quality of Japanese wood block prints the Legion of Honor holds in its Achenbach Collection.

It is the intensity of the color that is most astounding. All these date from 1700 to 1886, yet each print looks so fresh, almost as though each was recently printed. And the print colors got even more intense after contact with the West gave the print makers the new color of Prussian blue.

See this show now, because you won’t see these prints again for at least 20 years. That was the last time they were put on display. Show curator Karin Bauer told the Mountain Democrat that the long interval between exhibits is necessary to to preserve the prints because exposure to light will cause them to fade. The lighting in the print show is subdued but more than adequate to view the prints. Each print that has been in the show is tracked by by computer for how long it is brought out of its archival box and shown in the light.

Credit John E. Buchanan Jr., director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for having the inspiration for the two print shows at the Legion that complemented painting shows at the de Young. It was a true inspiration and he picked the right person. Bauer got the project for the Japanese print show a year ago. She started writing the catalog in February and it went to press in July.

Bauer, whose speciality is German Expressionism, is intimately familiar with the Legion’s collection of Japanese wood block prints. The collection was originally catalogued by Roger Keys 25 years ago and Bauer worked with Keys as he catalogued the collection. She also took classes and seminars from him.

The show, called Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism, opened Oct. 16 and runs through Jan. 9, 2011. Admission is $10. if you go to the Post-Impressionist show at the de Young, your $20 ticket there will get you in the Legion for free.

After a period of warring clans the Tokugawa clan emerged on top in 1600, establishing the shogunate in 1603, relegating the emperor to figurehead status, much as he is now. The shogun moved the seat of government from Kyoto to Edo, which is now called Tokyo.

Among the decrees of the shogun was the was the stratification of society, with the samurais at the top, farmers and artisans in the middle and merchants at the bottom, because they didn’t really make anything for the most part. This status at the bottom really freed them to make money, lots of it. The merchants, with their money to spend and free time that time eventually created many of the things we associate with Japanese society — the tea ceremony, Kabuki theater, wood block prints, scrolls, calligraphy, brush paintings, geishas and courtesans. Courtesans, naturally represent a profession older than the shogunate.

Geishas were entertainers, not courtesans. All these things plus festivals came together in a designated area, called the floating city. In Bauer’s notes to the first chapter of her show catalog she references Richard Lane, who describes the phrase floating world as a Buddhist term “expressing the sadness of the transient world to its hedonistic connotations in the 17th century.” Lane translated a 1661 Japanese novel called Tales of the Floating World: “Living only for the moment,turning our attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a whit for the paupersism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: This is what we call the floating world.”

Prints began as books, progressing from black and white prints to painting in colors and ultimately to multicolored wood block prints, with different blocks for each color.

Favorite subjects were head-and-shoulder drawings of famous actors, drawings of famous courtesans. People collected them like we collect baseball cards. Then in 1842 the shogun forbade prints of actors, dancers and courtesans. That, in turn, stimulated wood block prints of scenery. By this time the prints were sold separately. People pasted them onto fabric and hung them up in their homes. The scenes shifted from the idealized to actual places.

Many may have know about Katsushika Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, his famous one being the Great Wave. An artist who came after Hokusai is Utagawa Hiroshige, who created 100 Views of Famous Places in Edo.

Another series Hiroshige produced was 53 Stations of the Tokaido. Of particular note is his use of additional streaked inking on the wood block to indicate rain, with the figures showing themselves blown about by the wind as well. Other inking techniques included adding extra ink at the top and the bottom to produce a graduated shading, often of blue and sometimes red (at to top). It served as a compositional techique to bring your eye into the center composition and also as an enahnacement to the sky.

Many of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists studied and collected Japanese prints and incorporated some of their techniques and artistic apporaches into their paintings.

“The Japanese aesthetic had a profound impact on painting,” Buchanan told the assembled art press Oct. 15.

But one French artist went all out. Henri Riviere printed his own book of 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower. In conjunction with the show catalog the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have reprinted Riviere’s original book, complete with a prologue in the original artsy script in French by art critic Arsne Alexandre. An English translation is in the back of the book.

It took Riviere 10 years to produce the book. By the time Riviere’s book was published in 1902 interest had waned somewhat and he didn’t even complete the full press run of 500 books. Copies were printed by subscription. The miracle to me is that the Legion has possession of all 36 prints and an original book. Though Japonese art doesn’t have the same influence it once did on Western painting, these prints, especially the scenics still will make you say, “Wow!”


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