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Essay: Nostalgia as Remedy
Nostalgia as Remedy: Contextualizing the Japanese Woodblock Prints in the Archives & Special Collections
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.
Essay: Unfolding the Tradition
Unfolding the Tradition: The Production of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints
Nostalgic Femininity and From Flowers to Warriors conceptualize the schism between the feudal past and the modernizing present for the Meiji-period viewer living in the late nineteenth century. Through lighthearted imagery, the woodblock prints featured in these exhibitions draw inspiration from the momentary pleasures of the mortal world. The nostalgic images emphasize themes of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” made famous in the previous Edo period (1603–1868). This essay examines more than two centuries of print genre development, including the evolution from its early Buddhist roots to the modern prints found in these shows, and explores the evolving technical processes behind their creation.
Before Japanese printmakers began producing prints in the ukiyo-e genre, eighth-century craftsmen mainly used the medium of printmaking to disseminate religious texts, which were often Buddhist scriptures. This text-focused approach changed somewhat abruptly after painter Iwasa Matabei (1578–1650) laid the early groundwork for the ukiyo-e genre during the Edo period by creating imagery that reflected a commoner’s approach to aesthetics. Iwasa is often known as a “man of mystery” (nazo no jinbutsu), and his approach to addressing themes from the lived world became a bridge between painting and what would become the ukiyo-e style of woodblock printmaking.
Japanese artwork was more conservative before ukiyo-e’s birth. Previously, two-dimensional works contained religious icons, expansive landscape scenes, and courtly references. In contrast, ukiyo-e was a popular genre that appealed to seventeenth-century artisans and merchants. It was known for its inked, wiry outlines and vibrant colors, which effectively transferred onto silk paper, hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, folding screens, and sliding doors through the use of carved inked blocks. Print artists worked efficiently, following the common ukiyo-e theme of capturing human expression during extraordinary events. Their work framed the experience of townspeople, courtesans, kabuki actors, folk legends, and warriors. These subjects often corresponded to short stories and novellas that gained popularity as townspeople became affluent in the seventeenth century. As ukiyo-e prints became popular, demand for them could be seen all around Honshū, the main land body in the Japanese archipelago, and more specifically, in the cities and towns along the Tokaidō Road, Ise Bay, and Lake Biwa.
The Japanese government did not approve of the conspicuous consumption of ukiyo-e among the merchant class. The government issued intermittent laws that restricted an artist’s available themes, subjects, sizes, and materials. To court officials, the new ukiyo-e style appeared lewd since they were an antithesis to the traditionally commissioned religious and courtly artworks. While intent on censoring the print medium, these sporadic edicts from the early to the mid-nineteenth century had the opposite effect—such laws heightened artistic skill and ingenuity among print designers. Some artists, such as Utamaro Kitagawa (1753–1806), radically challenged the ruling authorities of the time by creating prints based on scenes from a forbidden novel.
While individual artists craftily navigated (and resisted) the censorship system, it is undeniable that printmaking was a medium for the people. Even at the height of their production from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, prints were produced by a team of artisans in a print shop rather than by an individual artist in the atelier. Instituted by an underdrawing or foundational drawing, ukiyo-e prints underwent a complicated formative process carried out by specialized workers. Underdrawing creators like Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) became prolific artists, emerging from anonymity and stamping their names on works with alluring titles like Two Lovers (ca. 1675–1680). These artists collaborated with a publisher who functioned as an overseer or contractor for the entire production process. From start to finish, creating prints entailed hiring an artist, an engraver, and a printer along with all of their respective assistants.
These experts took production seriously. To start, a skilled lead engraver chose a high-quality woodblock, a small piece of single-petaled white mountain cherry wood void of any warping. Next, by placing the underdrawing atop the block and moistening its inked design, a reverse image of the drawing transferred to the block, which functioned as a stencil for carving the negative space in relief. For the most detailed prints, the engraver supplied the printer with six to ten different woodblock layers. The printer assigned the various newly carved blocks specific colors that transferred perfectly through a method of re-registration. The printer ensured correct registration by making use of raised wooden guides known as kento—a straight-line bar guide and an L-shaped right-angle guide. He then brushed ink onto carved blocks using a thick, flat horse-mane brush. The inked blocks were aligned using the kento and carefully blanketed with damp mulberry paper. After pressing, the printer would pull the paper from the block to reveal perfect, opaque lines or shapes. To avoid lag time, printers usually repeated that initial step, exercising a single woodblock through multiple papers. They would continue making multiple editions of the same block until the initial one dried, which prevented the color from bleeding into the print’s first layer when the next layer was applied. The use of layers added new intricacies to the prints, and as artists moved forward into the Meiji era, they began to experiment with new designs and an expansive color palette.
From Flowers to Warriors and Nostalgic Femininity embody the colorful palette that is emblematic of the Meiji era. The use of synthetic aniline colors attests to a persistent phenomenon of the nineteenth century: Japanese Westernization. The dyes, first synthesized in England, were imported into Japan in the 1860s, and Japanese artists embraced these new materials. Synthetic dye first appeared in ukiyo-e in 1864, and it was a purple hue called rosaniline. Aniline red quickly followed, making the vibrant colors once reserved for paintings more accessible to print artists and their consumers. During this time, printmakers applied these dyes to the depiction of Western subjects to represent their modern attitudes and perspectives. An excellent example of this revolution in printmaking can be found in Yōshū Chikanobu’s Picture of the Japanese Imperial Line exhibited in From Flowers to Warriors. It portrays Emperor Meiji in Western military attire juxtaposed with traditionally dressed emperors of the past. However, not all prints so clearly embraced the modern subject. The works on view in these exhibitions show a longing for the past in their illustration of scenes from earlier periods. Despite their reliance on nostalgia, the bright colors reliably orient us in Japan’s Meiji era.
Asian Art Museum. “The evolution of ukiyo-e and woodblock prints.” Khan Academy. Accessed March 18, 2019.
Chiappa, J. Noel. “The Production of Japanese Woodblock Prints.” Accessed March 14, 2019.
Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
Derrick, Michele, Joan Wright, and Richard Newman. "Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints." Arnoldia 74, no. 3 (February 2017): 12-28.
Florillo, John. "Aniline Dyes in Meiji Nishiki-e: Toyohara Kunichika (豊原國周)." Viewing Japanese Prints. Accessed March 18, 2019.
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2004.
McKee, Dan. "Utamaro Kitagawa - Punishment - Tenpo Reforms." Artelino. Accessed March 18, 2019.
Parmal, Pamela A. "The Impact of Synthetic Dyes on the Luxury Textiles of Meiji Japan.” Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings (2004): 397-405.