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Japanese Screens & Prints

300 Breathtaking Views of Japan

The art and culture of Japan has long captured the Western imagination, its striking contrasts between subtle simplicity and incredible intricacy providing unending fascination and inspiring unique offshoots in Western art.

Currently, San Francisco is lucky enough to have two excellent exhibitions with Japanese themes that complement each other nicely. At the Asian Art Museum, Beyond Golden Clouds: Japanese Screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum looks at the profusion of style and subject matter in Japanese screen painting, while Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism, at the Legion of Honor, explores the interaction between Japanese and Western art over the last two hundred years.

Beyond Golden Clouds displays forty-one large screens, ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. From black and white to deeply saturated multitudes of color, from simple and spare to highly intricate, the pieces in the exhibition represent a wide variety of style, composition, and subject matter, giving visitors a delicious taste of one of Japan’s most famous art forms.

On the extremely simple side is Kaiho Yusho’s Landscape (c. 1602), which barely suggests mountains, trees, and a boat, with spare strokes and washes of ink over a vast expanse of subtly glowing gold. The beauty of the piece arises directly from this very economy of brushstroke. In direct contrast is Southern Barbarians, its brilliant palette and unceasing action creating the sense of sweeping change inherent in its subject matter: the arrival of a Portuguese ship at the port of Nagasaki.

While we commonly think of landscapes and scenes of human activity as the primary subject matter of screen painting, elsewhere in the exhibition are screens depicting a proliferation of flora and fauna. Others prominently feature the written word or move entirely into abstraction.

Ultimately, the diversity of subject matter and style in the exhibition serves to underscore the surprising elasticity of the screen as a medium of expression, often pleasantly surprising viewers.

Just as the screen is iconic of Japanese art, so too is the print. Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism takes up this other medium in both the evolution of its style and subject matter, and its influence on Western artists — particularly the Impressionists — in an utterly arresting display.

The woodcut prints of Japan are a fairly recent phenomenon, arising side-by-side with the new merchant class during the Edo Period (1615-1858). Earlier prints of the period were primarily monochromatic, later artists beginning to hand-color the prints. A Roadside Resting Place, an illustration in the book, A Father’s Gratitude (1730), is an excellent example of this. The distinct black outlines of bench and boulders are softly colored with yellows and greens.

However, a new technique soon came to dominate, in which separate blocks of wood were carved for each color, the images printed on top of each other on a single sheet of paper to create bold, clean images. Perfected by Kitagawa Utamuro in his portraits of courtesans (many of which are featured in the exhibition), this technique reaches its most recognized manifestations in the works of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai.

Hiroshige’s One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1857) depict the stunning composition that exerted enormous influence on Western artists, as does Hokusai’s famous series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (ca. 1830-1832). Prints from both of these series spread out before the viewer, image after image of incredibly bright, saturated color depicting not only expansive landscapes but also scenes from everyday life,. The framing and perspective create fascinating compositions.

By the time the West was exposed to them, Japanese prints had already reached soaring heights in terms of technique, subject matter, and popularity. Their brilliant colors, unusual perspectives, and bold compositions had a profound impact on the Impressionists as well as many other artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including Manet, Steinlen, Cassatt, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

Henri Riviere’s Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1902), for instance, is a direct nod to Hokusai. Riviere’s style and purpose imitate that of Hokusai throughout the series but with an unquestionably Western tone. August Louis Lepere’s The Convalescent, Madame Lepere (1892), uses the Japanese woodcut technique of Hokusai and Hiroshige, thus lending it similar qualities of line and color to that of Japanese prints.

The exhibition continues on for several more rooms like this, prints and paintings and drawings from the likes of Manet, Cassatt, Van Gogh, and Degas all very clearly showing the influence of the preceding Japanese prints on their composition, subject matter, and style. A perfect complement to The Birth of Impressionism and Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne, Japanesque also easily stands on its own as an exhaustive and exhilarating survey of Japanese and Japanese-influenced works of the last three hundred years.

Beyond Golden Clouds and Japanesque are an utter delight to the eye and provide a magnificent survey of two distinctly Japanese art forms.