Japanese Prints @ St. Kate's: Selections from the Archives & Special Collections at St. Catherine University

Essay: Nostalgia as Remedy

Nostalgia as Remedy: Contextualizing the Japanese Woodblock Prints in the Archives & Special Collections

by Christina M. Spiker

The woodblock prints in the exhibitions Nostalgic Femininity and From Flowers to Warriors, on view in The Catherine G. Murphy Gallery and the St. Catherine University Library respectively, are products of the artistic and cultural climate in Meiji-period Japan. To understand the visual content of the prints, it is necessary to situate them within their specific historical context.

The Meiji period (1868–1912) was a time of massive cultural and institutional transformation in Japanese culture. After the opening of Japanese ports in 1854 through the aggressive “gunboat diplomacy” of the United States, Japan was forced to begin trading with Western nations in port cities such as Yokohama and Hakodate. In 1868, just twelve years after the opening of the country, Japan’s long tradition of rule by military dictators (shōgun) was brought to an end through the coordinated efforts of young samurai known as shishi, or “men of high purpose.” These men sought to restore the power and privilege of the imperial line to protect against the rapid encroachment of foreign powers. With the restoration of the emperor came the importation of new technologies and institutions, from gas lamps and steam trains to a bicameral legislature and art museums. Japan viewed westernization as equivalent to modernization, and by the end of the Meiji era, the country had successfully transformed itself into a major world power in the Western model.

People’s daily lives also changed dramatically during this period, and prints by artists such as Yōshū Chikanobu (1838–1912) reflect the new tempo of modern life. As a son of a once-powerful feudal lord, Chikanobu himself remained faithful to the Tokugawa shogunate and fought against the reforms that brought about the Meiji Restoration, but his prints, such as Nobility in the Evening Cool (1887), nonetheless document the changing world around him. (1) Women of wealth abandoned their silk kimonos and trained their bodies to wear, move, and dance in the newly introduced bustle dress. (2) Men of high rank and status cut the top-knot of their chonmage hairstyles—an act that was formerly shameful and disgraceful for the samurai—and donned tuxedos and top hats as new markers of their wealth and importance. These people and fashions were symbols of the new gentility intent on showing that they were on par, if not superior to, people of Western nations, who repeatedly denigrated Japan for its lack of civilization.

The transformation of their physical bodies and dress was also reflected in the urban landscape. Andō Hiroshige’s iconic landscape scenery of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1833–1834), which illustrated towns along a major travel artery between the old and new capitals, or Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1829–1833), one of the most recognizable works of Japanese art in the world, became powerful reminders of the Edo past (1603–1868). New prints emerged in their wake featuring new, red brick buildings for which the Meiji period is known. They were embellished with freshly constructed fountains and gas lamps; scenes that were common in nineteenth-century Great Britain or Germany. These new modern structures became controversial symbols of Japan’s full embrace of westernization replete with hanging chandeliers and halls for evening soirées. (3)

Printmaking—a medium of the people and popular entertainment—actively reflected these dramatic societal changes. When war broke out, artists used printmaking as the preferred medium for documenting the battles and victories of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1905–1906). (4) Images of delicate cherry blossoms are replaced by flying bullets and heated naval battle; beautiful women in garden settings are supplanted by scenes of military heroism. Many of the artists featured in Nostalgic Femininity and From Flowers to Warriors—Chikanobu, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), Mizuno Toshikata (1866–1908), and others—either found their start or developed their popularity through the production of war prints.

It is against this overwhelming image of the new that artists began to engage with a nostalgia for the old; artists and viewers alike found comfort in stable imagery of Japan’s Edo past. The prints on display in Nostalgic Femininity and From Flowers to Warriors reminisce on gender roles, landscapes, historical figures, and even famous battles of the past. Artists explored notions of tradition on paper, while they grappled with rapid visible changes in their waking world. Despite the overly idealized imagery of court women going about their day in the Chiyoda Palace or courtesans lounging in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, the bright pigments, particularly the vividness of the synthetic aniline red dye, attest to imported technologies. The color betrays the illusion of historical romanticism, and the prints in these shows are certainly the products of a modernizing Japan.

Nostalgic Femininity, the exhibition on view in The Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, brings together prints by Chikanobu with select examples by Miyagawa Shuntei (1873–1914), Utagawa Kunisada I (1786–1864), and others in an exploration of the relationship between nostalgia and gender in modern Japan. Many of the women featured enjoy each other’s company in several seasonal contexts, from Chikanobu’s Snow in the Park (1892) to his later Cherry-blossom viewing (1894). His works pay close attention to the textiles and patterns found within women’s fashion, occasionally embossing and burnishing details as seen in the delicate silver outlines of the woman’s kimono in Depiction of an Official Hearing at Fukiage (1897). The show also brings together representations of court women juxtaposed against their courtesan counterparts, showing various historical networks of female relationships, such as that seen in Scattering Gold in the Flourishing Pleasure Quarter: Tamagiku and Kinokuniya Bunzaemon (1886). Several prints in the exhibition also explore the generational relationship between women and children. Yōsai Nobukazu’s November (1891) illustrates a woman teaching two young female apprentices the artistry of Japanese tea ceremony while Chikanobu’s Parading of the Mochi (Rice Cakes) (1895) shows a group of three older court women enjoying a winter festival procession alongside two younger girls. In an age when children were growing up in a world dramatically different from that of their parents, this focus on bringing up a young generation of women grounded in tradition has special resonance in the Meiji era. Overall, these prints package nostalgia in the female form, making women’s bodies the primary sites of Japanese tradition.

In comparison, From Flowers to Warriors, the companion exhibition on view in the St. Catherine University Library, contrasts the delicate petals of hollyhock, chrysanthemum, and cherry blossoms with the clash of swords and the heat of battle. This show brings representations of masculinity into the equation and looks at other themes found in nineteenth and twentieth-century printmaking, from beautiful women and the symbolism of flowers to warriors and mythological folk heroes. This exhibition also features a rare printed portrait of the Meiji Emperor and Empress by Chikanobu that simultaneously melds modern figureheads with the power and authority of their ancestors (1879). In contrast to Nostalgic Femininity, this exhibition forges connections between print genres to explore how themes of the past reemerge in the late nineteenth century. It questions artists’ preoccupation with traditional culture and imagery as a bulwark against change.

While the prints in these exhibitions demonstrate a longing for the past—and in some cases, a rejection of the present—it is also ironic how Chikanobu’s classical images of women became the de facto representation of Japanese femininity to Western audiences at the end of the nineteenth century. In line with movements of Japonisme across Europe, it was the woodblock print of the woman in the kimono and the samurai warrior that audiences wanted to see, not the new modern girl represented in Japanese oil paintings. While they looked back to the past for a domestic audience, these prints allowed viewers in the West to imagine Japan as a country both exotic and unchanging. This tension was emblematic of the period, with the Japan government continually trying to prove its equal status as a world power, and the Western response that Japan was modernizing, but never modern enough. These prints thus contain different meanings for different audiences of the time.

All of the prints in Nostalgic Femininity and From Flowers to Warriors are in the collection of the Archives & Special Collections at St. Catherine University. At the present moment, it is unclear how this body of work came to the university. On the one hand, it is always a possibility that one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet brought the prints back from one of several trips to Japan, as we have some records of other travel and purchases abroad. On the other, the prints could have been a generous gift from a donor to the University. Either way, the prints were forgotten in a flat-file drawer until their recent rediscovery several years ago. These exhibitions surely explore the myriad of themes described above, but they are also an act of reclamation and preservation for the community of St. Catherine University. We collectively hope that the imagery and stories found within these prints continue to inspire curiosity about Asian art and visual culture.

(1)   Bruce Coats, “Chikanobu, an Overview of his Life and Works,” in Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints, Bruce Coats, ed. (Boston and Claremont, CA: Hotei Publishing and Scripps College, 2006), 11-63.

(2)   Norman Bryson, "Westernizing Bodies: Women, Art, and Power in Meiji Yoga," in Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field, ed. Joshua S. Mostow, Norman Bryson, and Maribeth Graybill (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003), 89-118.

(3)   Toshio Watanabe, "Josiah Conder's Rokumeikan: Architecture and National Representation in Meiji Japan," Art Journal 55, no. 3, Japan 1868-1945: Art, Architecture, and National Identity (Autumn 1996), 21-27.

(4)   Andreas Marks, “Meiji-Period War Prints and Their Publishers,” in Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan, Philip K. Hu, ed. (Seattle and London: Saint Louis Art Museum; University of Washington Press, 2016), 25-33.

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