Clark Art Institute
Through April 2, 2017
I just saw a show of Japanese art at the Clark and I really liked it. I did not expect that. Lots of Westerners are fascinated by Japan, but I’ve never been among them. Who can explain it? It’s not ideological or racial–more like a complete disinterest. When I saw the film Lost in Translation I thought I’d rather eat dog sashimi than visit Tokyo, which appeared to me to be Las Vegas on neon steroids. I did not watch Shogun. My knowledge of Japanese culture is pretty much exhausted once we get past the words sushi, sayonara, and sake. That’s weird, because I know a fair amount about Chinese history and culture and much of Japanese culture began life as Chinese culture–sort of like Christianity began life as modified Judaism. This prelude is to say that if you were expecting some sort of “expert” review of the current show at the Clark, you’d get better commentary from a drunken samurai. Like that will stop me!
One reason I liked the show so much is that it’s a medium I adore: wood cuts. Its subtitle is: Color Woodblock Prints from the Rodbell Family Collection. I don’t know squat about the Rodbells either, except that in 2010 they gave the Clark a whole bunch of art they collected in the 1960s and 1970s. In this show, it’s woodblock prints from the 1830s into the 1970s. The earliest come from a style known as ukiyo-e, which translates “scenes from the floating world.” That’s a pretty cool way of expressing the idea that the things of this life and world are transitory, which is why the images are sumptuous yet dream-like, and nature is a dominant theme. The two most famous printmakers from this period were Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. You know Hokusai even if you don’t realize it. Have you ever seen the print of a large curling, cresting blue and white wave? Of course you have; it’s on a poster in every college dorm room and pseudo head shop in America!
The earliest print makers did it all—design, cutting the blocks (often several for each image), inking, printing, and publishing. In the 20th century, these tasks were often separated; hence the style is called shin-hanga (“new print”). It’s also more blatantly commercial–a tip they got from the late Impressionists, who discovered the link between marketing and solvency. Many of these evoked village life, exoticized Japanese life, and catered to Western buyers—much in the spirit of Native American trade goods. Japanese prints from the 1930s on are more expressionist, personal, and psychological in nature. I suppose one might even call them modernist, though I’m not sure if Japanese art experts would agree with that label.
This is about all I can honestly tell you, so here are a few images I photographed, along with a line or two about why I liked the woodcut. And I know I shouldn't make so many West/East comparisons, but I ascribe to the educational theory that you start with what you know and let it take to places unknown.
If you’re in the Williamstown area before April 2, take a look for yourself.
1. I always enjoy scenes of ordinary life. I like how the gloominess of a rainy day is captured, especially the contrast between the foreboding sky and the yellow raincoat and the red umbrella. It gives a sort of gloom meets hope for renewal vibe.
2. I've always admired the angst-riddled works of Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper. This one struck me as a Japanese mash of the two. Hey, I told you it would be an impressionistic review!
3.This one is trippy enough to be a rock concert poster from the Fillmore. It's a waterfall and the Japanese love to represent them. In fact, only images of Mt. Fuji are more numerous. I didn't put any Fuji images into this piece because everybody has seen scads of them.
4. Loved this one! The framing is off on my image because I was looking for an angle that didn't reflect the gallery lights off the glass. I like this because it's what Renoir's nudes should have been! I've never cared very much for Renoir's fleshy bodies--mostly because they are too sentimentalized for my tastes. This one is sensual, which is what I think nudes should be. I will also confess to being a fan of the nude in my bed--err, I mean art. (Monty Python reference!) Note once again the use of just a splash of bright color. The subject is an actress applying her make-up.
5. This one surprised me. Could be a Picasso, yes? See what I mean about the modernist flair?
6. Another angst vibe, but this one feels ominous with the the small dark figure about to burst into a square of light. It made me think of Orson Welles movie shots from films such as "Touch of Evil."
7. Take out the junks under the bridge, add some fog, add a few smokestacks poking through the murk, and render the tones more somber and you'd have something from Monet's Waterloo Bridge series.