Contextualizing Contemporary Japanese Woodblock Prints

At first glance, the selection of 20th century Japanese woodblock prints in our July Gallery Auction is simply a natural extension of their artistic heritage - traditional Japanese themes expressed in a traditionally Japanese form. But when considered in the context of the sweeping political and economic changes that took place in Japan from the Meiji period at the end of the 19th century through the aftermath of WWII, their traditionalism starts to tell a more nuanced story.

fullsizeoutput_c1A Woodblock Print by Funio Kitaoka (Japanese, 1918-2007)

As with so many cultural trends, it is useful to consider the art of 20th century Japanese woodblock prints in terms of pre- and post- WWII. In the earliest part of the 20th century, the traditional technique of making woodblock prints, which had been known as ukiyo-e, was just re-emerging from a period of decline after the Meiji era of intense Westernization. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Meiji emperor opened Japan to the West, driving trade, the adoption of all things Western, and the abandonment of age-old Japanese traditions. Ironically, just as Japanese artists were being encouraged to move on from ukiyo-e, its popularity with and influence on major European artists like Toulouse Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh and Mary Cassat, who now had ready access to Japanese art, reinforced its value at home. If it was good enough for the West, it was good enough for a Westernizing Japan.

During this period, Japan was busy stretching and testing its newly unrestrained political, economic and military muscle. The country raced to catch up with the world powers with which it now kept company, and redeem Asia from the colonialism of the previous centuries. The Japanese military maintained a constant pressure on Russia and China, making quick incursions into their territory. They took advantage of Europe's preoccupation with itself during WWI to gain territory in the region unhindered by Western resistance.

The new school of woodblock prints that sprang up during this time were called shin hanga. The best of them took on the age-old Japanese subjects of nature, temples, and scenes of everyday life, but incorporated new Western techniques to create perspective and three-dimensionality. They generally communicate a feeling of quiet peace, but in the context of Japan's global ambitions, that peace belies proud nationalism. Where a quiet mountain scene might otherwise seem a simple contemplation of nature, in light of Japan's new thirst for global dominance it instead communicates sheer power.

fullsizeoutput_c2Suzukawa (Mt.Fuji from the Suzu River),Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)

Then, of course, came WWII - the moment when Japan joined Germany in a bid to take the global reigns - and its aftermath. The Allied occupation and restructuring of Japan's economy and government from 1945-1952 forced Westernization on Japan in an entirely new way. In this period, traditional artforms became a way to preserve what could be salvaged of Japan's heritage and to grapple with the drastic and rapid changes taking place in Japanese culture. Where woodblock portrayals of Mount Fuji 20 years earlier broadcast the country's ambition, now they communicated a hope for the immutability of traditional values. Nostalgic scenes of folk life like the ones below honored the customs that Japanese artists saw slipping away.

fullsizeoutput_c3Woodblock print by Tomikichiro Tokuriki (Japanese, 1902-1999)

Of course, the very existence of these artworks in our North Carolina auction house is a continuation of the story - were it not for the evolving contact between East and West, we would not have this material to spur contemplation of how Japan navigated its cultural development throughout the 20th century. And attempting that contemplation from our decidedly Western perspective creates its own complications. But it is clear to see, from any point of view, that the richest understanding of a national art form can only be gained from within its social and political context. What, in the case of Japanese woodblock prints, might seem a simple continuation of themes and form, is so much more.

View the full catalogue for the July Gallery Auction

Created by LLA Content Director Elizabeth Sharp