“The peace accompanying the beginning of evening happens to me with this print,” said Mary Pixley, associate curator at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.
She was gazing at a woodblock print of an evening water scene by Tsuichiya Koitsu (1879–1949) and was lost in it for a moment. Her face and eyes softened as she described the effect the image has on her, “And then you feel night falling with the last light of the sun touching the edge of the clouds.”
Pixley is the curator of the museum’s show “The Poetry of Nature in Japanese Woodblock Prints,” which opened last month and runs through late August.
The show consists of 23 Japanese woodblock prints by five artists. Pixley culled the prints from what she estimated to be about 2,000 woodblock prints the museum owns, most of which were given to the museum.
The number and beauty of prints in the museum’s collection inspired her to do the show, she said. It is her second exhibit since joining the staff last September.
She has no theme for the show, she said, as she wanted to keep the number of prints low enough to allow space for an experience with each. “If you look at these prints for longer than a moment, quiet appears,” she said.
Amy Erdmann and her daughter Judy Garcia visited the show from St. Louis. Garcia pointed to a print of Mount Fuji by her favorite artist of the show, Kawase Hasui (1883–1957). “I feel my body going into the deep blue and the darkness of evening, as the day fades into night,” she said.
These prints, known as “hanga” in Japanese, had religious beginnings, according to research done by Rebecca Dunham, a graduate student assistant at the museum.
Traditionally, woodblocks were carved from cherry wood, colored with ink and then pressed on to paper to produce a woodblock print. A single woodblock could produce hundreds of prints until ink on the wood built up to the point that print quality deteriorated beyond satisfaction.
The woodblock tradition first appeared in Japan via Buddhist monks from China in the eighth century as images of devotion and worship, according to Dunham’s research. With the decline of Buddhist influence in the Tokugawa government (1603-1868) of Japan, hanga became a secular endeavor and, as with many other aspects of Japanese life, was influenced by the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912).
The secularization of hanga in the Tokugawa period resulted in what is known as a “ukiyo-e” style, which translates as “images of the floating world,” a genre that depicted the life of the merchant class that flourished in the period. Landscape subjects, known as “sansui-ga” in the ukiyo-e tradition, are the focus of this show.
The natural world has long reflected spiritual principles in Japanese culture, said Pixley. This connection with nature in Japan owes its origin in part to a mixing of the animism of the native Shinto religion and the principle of impermanence in Buddhism, she said. The sansui-ga prints in this show, she added, are an expression of this connection.
Some of the hanga in the show represent the influence the West had on Japanese art due to the Meiji period, said Pixley. The most famous of the artists in the show, Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige (1797–1858), who is known for his landscapes, worked before the Meiji period, and his six prints in this show reflect the traditional Japanese style of flat areas of color and two-dimensional qualities. For example, she said, his print “Tago Bay” features a swath of water before Mount Fuji in the distance but does not have much depth from foreground to background and features only a few simple discrete colors with little shading.
In contrast, a print in the show by a later artist, Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950), “Hirosaki Castle,” exemplifies some of the differences in the craft that occurred with Westernization, Pixley said. The image has detail and depth, both characteristics of Western art. In the print, Hirosaki Castle looms in the distance through a print full of detailed cherry blossoms.
But these cultural aspects of the prints are not what Pixley was primarily interested in presenting when she designed the show; she wanted to focus on highlighting the prints’ transcendent qualities. “I want you to contemplate nature,” she said.
Dunham gave her impression of a print by Utagawa Hiroshige II (1829–1869), which, like Garcia’s impression, reflect Pixley’s desire for the show. In the print, a solitary boatman travels a canal into the distance in falling snow. “I hear the water in the canal and feel the cold,” Dunham said. “And I hear the quietness of the snow, and the soft purr of snow falling.”