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Contrasting Traditional and Modern: Ukiyo-e and Contemporary Prints from Japan

Inspired by an exhibition of miniature paintings at the British Museum in 2010, where traditional and modern paintings were juxtaposed against one another, showing the viewer linkages between old and new, Sabah Husain used the same ethos in ‘Evolving Imagery: Ukiyo-e and Contemporary Prints from Japan.’ The exhibition of fifty-five prints from the old masters and twenty-two by modern printmakers at the National Gallery in Islamabad began its journey late last year at the Alhamra Gallery in Lahore and is scheduled to be shown at one more venue in the coming months.
The traditional prints on display here are from private collections, and although not originals executed by the artists themselves, they are reproductions made in traditional wood block workshops using the same materials and techniques as the old masters would have done. Ukiyo-e prints such as the examples shown here date from the Edo period, when the art form reached its zenith. Their execution was a painstaking four stage process. The artist designed the print, in which the use of color and minute detail necessitated the use of multiple blocks; the carver carved the wood blocks; the printer inked and executed the prints, and the publisher financed and distributed the finished works to a newly affluent middle class market. Ukiyo-e, which means ‘the floating world,’ were not designed to show reality: they were images of a world of pleasure. These processes are in direct contrast to those of modern Japanese printmakers, who work as individual artists, much like modern miniaturists in Pakistan, who have moved from the traditional karkhana. They use modern techniques such as silkscreen, lithograph, etching and aquatint, and have moved away from the traditional themes of portraits of Geisha, theatre performers, and landscapes, to works that reflect contemporary concerns. Where they stand in continuity with the old masters is their off centered compositions, flat areas of strong color and the emphasis on contrast, curve and pattern to create form, and a lack of perspective and shadow. These principles were absorbed by early twentieth century Western artists, designers and architects, particularly the Impressionists, many of whom collected Japanese art, and also influenced abstract art.

Noda Tetsuya (b. 1940). Diary: Sept 28th, 03. Woodcut
and silkscreen print. 62.4 cm x 41.8 cm. 2003.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). Flirtatious Woman.
Ukiyo-e print.. 37.9 cm x 24.4 cm.
Having studied printmaking in Japan in the 1980s (four of the printmakers whose work is on display here were her professors), in traditional as well as modern print studios, Sabah Husain understands how contemporary artists incorporate structural and compositional elements from the former into their work. In the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, she sets traditional prints against modern works. Hokusai’s Stormy Sea off Kanagawa, one of his famous Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, is shown next to Reika Iwami’s Water of Mount Fuji, which bears similarities in composition and sense of movement. Iwami, who uses the texture and grain of wood to create pattern, form and movement in her works, which often appear like visual poetry, is one of Japan’s pioneering female artists, acclaimed in the 1950s in the hitherto male dominated world of print workshops. Tadayashi’s Transposition, a large print of leaves on the ground (etching, aquatint and lithograph) borrows compositional aspects from Utagawa’s View of the Whirl Pools at Awa, in which the delicate, stylized landscape, divided into three panels, is composed of light and dark contrasts, and patterns which make up form – such as the concentric circles which make up whirlpools – elements echoed in the former’s division of space into panels, of the picture plane into specific areas of light and dark, and the use of pattern. Tetsuya’s whimsical Diary: Sept 28th, 03 is a woodcut and silkscreen print ostensibly of two oranges and a button, which on closer inspection reveal themselves to be a woman’s breasts and navel; this is juxtaposed against Utamaro’s Flirtatious Woman. Both reveal a whimsical treatment of the feminine form; the modern artist also treats the background with a delicacy resembling that of the master Utamaro’s print. However, in the case of Hideo’s lithograph Sounds of Trees, Whispering People, modern in concept, coloring and execution, the relation to Utamaro’s Takashima Ohisa, a rendering of a courtesan with a panel of text in its upper left side, is not apparent without guidance from the curator or from accompanying information next to the work, which is not provided. Hideo’s subject appears to be listening intently to the sounds of nature; the print leads one to imagine a slight breeze which carries the faintest sounds along it, if one takes time to listen.

If the links between traditional and modern aren’t immediately apparent, the sheer visual delight of the works overshadows this concern. Aside from the display of some traditional prints set against modern ones, the rest are grouped according to era and individual artist, each of whom is represented by several prints, giving the viewer a good idea of their themes and treatment. The subtle water color effects made possible by using water based pigments, as in the sky and sea in Utagawa’s landscapes, are visible in the accompanying catalogue, but the metallic glimmer in the background of Sharaku’s portraits of Kabuki actors, made with powdered mica, are impossible to reproduce and seeing them up close shows them to full effect. In the case of the old masters, what impresses the viewer are the attention to detail particularly considering that each color required a separate wood block, the beauty and delicacy of line, and the application of color in such a way as to show subtle gradations of hue, and ombre-like effects. With regard to information on the evolution of imagery and reinvention of technique in Japan, these were addressed by the curator in gallery talks, an essential feature of exhibitions curated by Sabah Husain. Using a public gallery rather than the smaller spaces offered by private art galleries has been an advantage for the curator, as large groups of students from schools and colleges have been able to visit. During this exhibition, she found that some students came back two or three times: having seen the exhibition and taken the catalogue home, they would return to view details they had missed, or with questions regarding the works or the process.
Offering art enthusiasts and students the opportunity to view international art works, particularly those from the East Asia, has been one of the curator’s priorities throughout her career as a director of the Lahore Arts Foundation. The work shown has been consistently excellent, including documentation through well produced catalogues with accompanying essays. The gallery talk is a welcome initiative, although accompanying information, in the form of short notes next to works, where relevant, would be a welcome addition.

Ilona Yusuf is a writer and an artist.
All images courtesy National Gallery, Islamabad.

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