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West Van’s Ukiyoe Spectacular
When ukiyo-e prints made their way overseas in the late-19th century as wrapping for exported ceramics, Westerners were awestruck by the exotic designs.
European impressionists Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and American modernist Frank Lloyd Wright praised the technical sophistication and vivid colors, as well as ukiyo-e’s intrinsic meanings.
Japanese people alive during the height of ukiyo-e popularity from 1604 to 1868 treasured images of beautiful women, samurai, kabuki actors and romantic views of famous places.
Many of these woodblock prints, however, aren’t just pleasant to the eye. They are political, with hidden meanings, and portrayed major historical events to those eager to know what was happening in society.
West Vancouver Museum’s is showcasing dozens of ukiyo-e prints at Ukiyoe Spectacular, which runs from Jan. 10 to March 22.
“The general public could now buy these prints. While the wealthy could commission a painting, these were available to anyone,” says assistant curator Kiriko Watanabe, who travelled to Japan to gather the prints. She is working closely with Shinichi Inagaki, a ukiyo-e print collector and scholar from Tokyo.
During the 1800s, says Watanabe, the newly affordable prints meant messages could be easily passed through Japan, much like a newspaper does today.
Ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world,” were produced in collaboration by highly trained designers, woodcarvers and printers. Publishers supervised production and carefully watched consumer trends in the rapidly urbanizing Edo public.
In 1842, the government prohibited commoners from indulging in luxury and made ukiyo-e depicting actors illegal. New genres quickly followed, indulging parodies and caricatures, comics and educational prints.
To create a unified exhibit, Watanabe has arranged the prints in similar groups.
“Many of these haven’t been shown in North America before. Some landscapes have been shown but not these,” says Watanabe, examining a complicated but humorous image.
A cluster of turtle-like creates with human heads may seem perplexing to 21st century Canadians, but each face would have been recognizable during the Edo time period.
“They are actors’ faces. Everyone knew who they were,” says Watanabe, with a laugh.
On the other wall hangs a print with catfish folklore, a more serious image in response to the devastation of the Ansei Edo Earthquake in 1855 when merchants lost wealth and labourers benefited from the new economy.
This mixture of themes — both serious and comedic — is what makes ukiyo-e so extraordinary, says Watanabe.
Ukiyoe Spectacular’s opening reception is on Jan. 9 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the West Vancouver Museum, 680 17th St. A list of other events, such as a Japanese woodcut printing demonstration and seminars on ukiyo-e’s history, is available at westvancouvermuseum.ca. Additional prints are showing at the Nikkei National Museum, 6688 Southoaks Cr., Burnaby.
- With information from the West Vancouver Museum