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For Immediate Release
October 15, 2021
Digital Images Available Upon Request

CLARK ART INSTITUTE OPENS EXHIBITION ON JAPANESE PRINTS EXPLORING 20TH-CENTURY PRINTMAKING MOVEMENTS

Competing Currents: 20th-Century Japanese Prints opens on November 6, 2021

(Williamstown, Massachusetts)— In its latest exhibition, the Clark Art Institute presents an opportunity to see a wide selection of works from its collection of Japanese prints. Competing Currents: 20th-Century Japanese Prints includes more than thirty-five works and considers two specific movements that had a significant influence on twentieth-century printmaking in Japan. The exhibition is on view in the Clark’s Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper from November 6, 2021 through January 30, 2022.

“We are eager to share a remarkable selection of works from our collection that we know our visitors will find both beautiful and fascinating,” said Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Clark. “We are particularly proud to present this exhibition as it is the result of a valued partnership between the Clark and the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. The curator of Competing Currents, Oliver Ruhl, developed the concept for and planned this exhibition during an internship at the Clark while he was a student in the graduate program. His impressive work is a tribute to Oliver’s exceptional scholarship and curatorial creativity.”

For more than two centuries during its Edo period (1603–1867) Japan witnessed a flowering of art and popular entertainment in its new capital, Edo (now Tokyo). The city’s pleasure quarters were referred to as ukiyo (the floating world)—an ethereal realm of nightlife and recreation. A new market of middle-class patrons encouraged artists to create expressive and iconic images for mass distribution. The prints created to meet this demand were known as ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world). Ukiyo-e, in the form of prints and posters, depicted hedonistic scenes from Edo’s bars, brothels, and kabuki theaters. Purveyors and consumers of ukiyo-e embraced the fleeting and sensual nature of city life, desiring pictorial representation of familiar sights and leisure scenes. Propelled by artists such as Kastushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, landscape also became an especially popular theme among patrons of ukiyo-e. The prints became wildly popular not only in Japan, but eventually, across the globe as the country opened to international trade in the mid-nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, woodblock prints had largely fallen out of vogue. Japan’s printmaking landscape underwent an unprecedented tidal shift with mass-market newspapers and magazines taking Japan by storm. The popular woodblock prints of the previous centuries suddenly seemed, to many, a relic of the past.  During this transitional time in the early 1900s, two parallel printmaking movements rose to prominence—shin-hanga (new prints) and sōsaku-hanga (creative prints)—and reinvigorated the public’s relationship with printmaking in both Japan and the West. Shin-hanga was defined by a nostalgia for the premodern, while sōsaku-hanga rejected the past and embraced modernist and avant-garde sensibilities. In both movements, however, printmakers were forced to reckon with the legacy of ukiyo-e, new influences from European art, and the demands of a rapidly evolving global market. Simultaneously, a com­plete overhaul of Japan’s public infrastructure, two world wars, and a series of cataclysmic natural disasters continually disrupted artistic pursuits. 

Following differing politics and aesthetic ideals, twentieth-century Japanese printmakers responded to these events in varied and indus­trious ways, as seen in the heterogeneity of their compositions. Though shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga represent only a small part of a complicated evolution, these works provide a glimpse of the contested artistic currents that defined Japanese printmaking in the twentieth century.

“Fundamentally, shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga represented two radically different assertions of how Japanese printmaking should present itself on the widening world stage of the twentieth century,” said exhibition curator Oliver Ruhl. Drawing from the Clark’s diverse collection of Japanese prints, this exhibition seeks to shed light on an often overlooked period of splendid artistic production.”. Ruhl is a 2021 graduate of the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. He developed the exhibition while completing an internship at the Clark with Anne Leonard, the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. He is currently a PhD candidate in the field of Japanese art history at The University of California, Los Angeles. In addition to his work at the Clark, Ruhl has held positions at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Williams College Museum of Art.

Traditional Japanese woodblock printing involved contributions from several individuals: a designer, a carver, a printer, and a publisher. Although only a single artist, usually the designer, took credit for a print, in both the ukiyo-e and shin-hanga movement works were a collaborative effort, with designers often having little control over how a woodblock was carved or printed.

Once the designer made a drawing, carvers attached it to the block and used knives and chisels to cut the design into the woodblock (traditionally cherry wood). After applying ink to the block, the printer would then press a sheet of paper against the block, using a tool called a baren, in order to transfer the design. Separate blocks were carved for every color in a print, with the most complicated prints requiring upwards of twenty separate woodblocks. The process of creating a woodblock, though laborious and time-consuming, allowed an image to be reproduced hundreds if not thousands of times before the block became unusable due to wear.

SHIN-HANGA

Conceived as a restaging of the ukiyo-e tradition in the twentieth century, the shin-hanga movement looked to the past to depict the contemporary. The picturesque views of meishō (famous places) by Kawase Hasui, lyrical landscapes by Tsuchiya Koitsu, and dusk-shrouded street scenes by Yoshida Hiroshi incorporated both traditional ukiyo-e and Western landscape conventions. Working in an intense period of modernization and Westernization, many shin-hanga artists appealed to consumers by creating works that evoked nostalgia for a premodern Japan.

Following the model established by ukiyo-e printmakers during the Edo period, the majority of shin-hanga prints were created through a collaborative process. Work was divided between the artist, carver, and printer, and guided by a publisher. The most prominent publisher in this movement was Watanabe Shōzaburō, whose offices in Japan and London, as well as distribution routes to the United States, facilitated a renewed fervor for Japanese prints in the early twentieth-century.

Among the most prolific members of the shin-hanga movement, Kawase Hasui, like many of his contemporaries, first trained as a painter and illustrator. In 1917, however, upon viewing an exhibition of prints by Ito Shinsui at the Shirokiya department store in Tokyo, Kawase dedicated the remainder of his career to printmaking. Working almost exclusively with publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, Hasui synthesized Western-influenced realism and nostalgia for a pre-industrialized Japanese landscape in his prints. A devotee of the landscape format, Kawase was lauded for the lyricism of his idealized rural scenes. In 1956, the Japanese government designated Kawase a Living National Treasure in recognition of his invaluable contribution to the woodblock print medium.

Featured in the exhibition is Kawase’s Rain in Uchiyamashita, Okayama District (1923), which became one of his most popular compositions after it miraculously survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing firestorms that incinerated much of Tokyo, including the warehouse that housed much of his work. 

The Kintai Bridge, completed in 1673 and comprising five serpentine wooden arches, was a favorite artistic subject of many of the shin-hanga printmakers, fueling national attention to the structure and making it a popular tourist site. Two views of the Kintai Bridge are included in the exhibition. Utagawa Hiroshige II’s Kintai Bridge at Iwakuni in Suō Province (1859) and Hasui Kawase’s The Kintai Bridge in Suō Province (1924), created sixty-five years apart, emblematize the differing approaches of ukiyo-e and shin-hanga artists through the depiction of this landscape. Hiroshige II captures the bridge from above, accentuating the rhythms of its undulating arches amid a flurry of snow. Conversely, Hasui depicts the bridge from below, truncating its form. 

SŌSAKU-HANGA

Although examples of sōsaku-hanga (creative prints) works can be found as early as 1904, the movement did not gain serious traction until after World War II. During the postwar occupation of Japan by the United States, sōsaku-hanga artists found an enthusiastic audience in the American soldiers who had flooded into the country. After a popular showing at the São Paulo Art Biennial in 1951, the movement won recognition on the international stage.

In many ways, sōsaku-hanga was conceived in opposition to ukiyo-e and shin-hanga. Inspired by native folk-art traditions as well as the Western notion of the artist as a solitary creative, sōsaku-hanga artists emphasized that their art was the result of the labor of a single artist rather than that of a collaborative team of artisans. As such, many sōsaku-hanga artists adopted the concept of jiga jikoki jizuri (self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed). Experimentation was an essential tenet of the movement, its artists testing new materials, techniques, and methods of depicting the world around them.

A key member and proponent of the sōsaku-hanga movement, Saitō Kiyoshi championed individualism within a printmaking culture that had prioritized collaboration for generations. First working as a commercial sign painter, Saitō moved from his rural home of Hokkaido to Tokyo in 1932. As a self-taught woodblock artist, he began exhibiting his work in the late 1930s. Not until 1951, however, did Saitō find fame on the international stage, winning a prize at the inaugural São Paulo Biennial. He spent the remainder of his career creating work for a global audience, even designing and printing the first woodcut to be featured as a cover of Time magazine in 1967.

Moments of solitude were rare in Gion, Kyoto’s famous entertainment district. Geisha, revelry seekers, and tourists flooded its streets each night, frequenting its many restaurants, teahouses, and theaters. In Gion in Kyoto (B) (1959), Saitō employs bold, solid blocks of color to depict the wooden facade of a typical shop and incorporates the grain of the woodblock to lend texture to the cobbled street below. 

In a field typically dominated by men, Shima Tamami was one of only a handful of female artists who participated in the sōsaku-hanga movement. Shima’s A Stand of Trees (1959), included in the exhibition, is an exceptional example of sōsaku-hanga, subtly evoking a Shinto shrine surrounded by barren trees, their forms abstracted into bands of grey and brown that span the composition. 

Of the more than thirty-five shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga works presented in the exhibition, many were drawn from a selection of works gifted to the Clark in 2014 by the Rodbell Family Collection.

Competing Currents: 20th-Century Japanese Prints is organized by the Clark Art Institute and curated by Oliver Ruhl, 2021 graduate of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art. Generous support for the exhibition is provided by Elizabeth Lee.  

ABOUT THE CLARK

 The Clark Art Institute, located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, is one of a small number of institutions globally that is both an art museum and a center for research, critical discussion, and higher education in the visual arts. Opened in 1955, the Clark houses exceptional European and American paintings and sculpture, extensive collections of master prints and drawings, English silver, and early photography. Acting as convener through its Research and Academic Program, the Clark gathers an international community of scholars to participate in a lively program of conferences, colloquia, and workshops on topics of vital importance to the visual arts. The Clark library, consisting of more than 275,000 volumes, is one of the nation’s premier art history libraries. The Clark also houses and co-sponsors the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art.

The Clark, which has a three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide, is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Its 140-acre campus includes miles of hiking and walking trails through woodlands and meadows, providing an exceptional experience of art in nature. Galleries are open 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday, from September through June, and daily in July and August. Advance timed tickets are required. Admission is $20; free year-round for Clark members, all visitors age 21 and under, and students with a valid student ID. Free admission is available through several programs, including First Sundays Free; a local library pass program; and EBT Card to Culture. For more information on these programs and more, visit clarkart.edu or call 413 458 2303. As of November 1, visitors age twelve and older will be required to show proof of vaccination prior to entering the Clark’s facilities. Visitors age five and older are required to wear face masks at all times while indoors, and outdoors when social distancing is not possible. For details on health and safety protocols, visit clarkart.edu/health

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