Exploring Japanese culture through ukiyo-e woodblock prints
Two fantastic exhibits – showcasing over one hundred woodblock prints from the 1800s from a private collection in Japan are currently on display at the West Vancouver Museum and the Nikkei National Museum. Ukiyoe Spectacular includes compelling images and gives a rare opportunity for visitors to see the visual and technical sophistication of this unique Japanese art form.
It was a real pleasure when Kiriko Watanabe came for a visit to the Nikkei National Museum over a year ago and told me about her plans for a show of fantastical ukiyo-e. Despite having very different mandates, our two museum galleries are about the same size, with similar staff numbers and budgets. Combining our resources made it possible to show a larger number of these very special woodblock prints, and share the expenses of this complex international exhibit.
Our challenge was to create unique but complementary exhibits in the two venues. For West Vancouver, we chose to focus on supernatural and epic myths, showcasing both drama and artistry. To suit the cultural and family audiences at the Nikkei National Museum, we chose images of good fortune, and many playful and whimsical themes. Some themes are shared in both venues – especially because of the political changes taking place in the mid 1800s in Japan. It is also interesting to consider the links between these historic ukiyo-e and contemporary manga.
Director-Curator, Nikkei National Museum
In her own words: Kiriko Watanabe
by John Endo Greenaway
One wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a Japanese-born woman running a museum in West Vancouver, although on the other hand – why not! Tell me how you came to be assistant curator at the West Vancouver Museum.
I completed the Critical Curatorial Masters program at the University of British Columbia in 2003 and took on the position of Assistant Curator at the West Vancouver Museum shortly after I graduated.
Where did you live in Japan and what did you do before coming here?
I’m from Kawasaki, Japan. I worked part-time at an American antique store and also at a university research institution before coming to Canada.
What prompted you to relocate to Canada from Japan?
I came to Vancouver to study English, with the intention to learn the most widely-spoken language in the world and then travel. I have come to love the ocean, mountains and people on the west coast and ended up staying here.
When I was a child my mother had a book of Japanese ghost stories and it featured one of the prints in your exhibition, Princess Takiyasha Calling Up a Monstrous Skeleton Spectre at the Haunted Old Palace at S?ma. That print scared the living daylights out of me, although I was fascinated by it at the same time. Looking at the prints in your exhibit, though, it’s not necessarily representative of ukiyo-e in general. Maybe you can explain to our readers (and me!) what ukiyo-e is and why it is significant . . .
Ukiyo-e is a style of Japanese woodblock prints or paintings that dates back over three hundred years. Ukiyo-e artists from the Edo era demonstrated superb woodblock-carving techniques and created compelling works that are recognized throughout the world today. A rich variety of ukiyo-e prints was developed to illustrate the everyday life of ordinary people, samurai chronicles, delightful landscapes and portrayals of beautiful women and kabuki actors. It was a unique and affordable art form that flourished in the cultural centre of Edo.
Many of the prints included in Ukiyoe Spectacular exemplify the evolution of humorous forms of prints, such as giga (comic prints) and asobi-e (toy prints). These unusual prints became popular after Tempo Reforms in 1842 that prohibited the depiction of actors and courtesans. As a consequence of political restrictions, more innovative and unconventional designs evolved. Ukiyo-e artists started to explore parodies of adult behaviors, playfully interpreted mythologies, fascinating ghost stories and puzzle-like imageries. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, for example, cleverly evaded the ban by creating prints of cats and other animals that incorporated recognizable characteristics of well-known actors and individuals. His musha-e (samurai pictures), such as Princess Takiyasha Calling Up a Monstrous Skeleton Specter, demonstrates his exceptional talent as an ukiyo-e designer by capturing the dramatic moment when a monstrous skeleton appears out of the darkness over two samurai, who seem to be bravely ready to fight against it. It also depicts a recurring story of a rivalry between the Genji and Taira clans.
Are there modern forms of ukiyo-e? Do you have examples in your exhibition?
We are showing a movie titled Techniques of Ukiyo-e, which introduces traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking through carving woodblocks and the making of a colour print of Girl Blowing a Glass Toy, a master work by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). This 30-minute movie was produced by the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, an institution in Tokyo that tries to preserve the traditional engraving and printing techniques. At the end of this program it shows some modern ukiyo-e prints by Matazo Kayama, Ikuo Hirayama, Niki de Saint Phalle and Friedensreich Hundertwasser among others.
What should people look for when they’re viewing the exhibit?
Though some prints in this exhibition depict dramatic historical events, others are comical and fun to look at. Many of them are visually quite complicated and full of information: as you look at a print more carefully, you begin to discover the complexity of each design. Brief background information is provided through accompanying exhibition labels, which will give you some historical, cultural and visual descriptions.
You co-curated Ukiyoe Spectacular with Shin’ichi Inagaki, a well-respected ukiyo-e scholar and collector in Japan – how did this collaboration come about?
Mr. Inagaki wished to present his collection overseas to stimulate interest and enthusiasm towards Japanese art. The idea for an ukiyo-e exhibition was first introduced to me around 2007 by Ms. Kazuko Honjo, who visited the West Vancouver Museum to see an exhibition. Despite the prolonged period of careful preparation, Mr. Inagaki and Ms. Honjo maintained their enthusiasm and we are deeply grateful for their efforts to realize this extraordinary exhibition. The exhibition was drawn from the extensive collection of Mr. Inagaki and over one hundred ukiyo-e prints from middle Edo to early Meiji periods are presented at the West Vancouver Museum and the Nikkei National Museum.
Was there anything surprising that you learned in putting together this exhibit?
It was a process of rediscovering my own culture. A closer examination of ukiyo-e prints has illuminated intriguing connections to some of the stories I heard in the past and traditions I learned before. I also learned a lot about Japanese history through researching this project.
Do you often collaborate with other institutions?
Curating an exhibition is a collective team effort by a team of various professionals. Incorporating different perspectives and a range of specialized knowledge is a key to a successful exhibition. Ukiyoe Spectacular was my first exhibition to be presented simultaneously in two venues. 2014 marks the 125th anniversary of consular relations between Canada and Japan. We felt that it would be a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the Nikkei National Museum to mark this important occasion.
Would you recommend that people visit both your Museum and the Nikkei National Museum in order to see the scope of the exhibit?
Yes I would. The two exhibitions are complimentary, but also quite different from each other. The prints on display are rarely available to see in North America. I believe that it is worth visiting both venues and not miss this special opportunity.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn out your lovely little museum and am guessing that many of our readers have never been here. Do you have a particular mandate or focus?
The West Vancouver Museum fosters awareness and understanding of art, culture and history through dynamic exhibitions and educational programs. While our exhibitions often feature West Coast art and architecture, we strive to present a variety of stimulating exhibitions. This is the first time we have done an exhibition of this kind. Working with Mr. Inagaki, who wished to share his remarkable collection, presented a unique opportunity for us.
What has the response been to Ukiyoe Specatucular?
Absolutely amazing! This exhibition has reached a broad range of audience from elementary school students to senior residents to professionals in art industries. It has been a great pleasure for me to observe how people are fascinated by the ukiyo-e prints on display and impressed with their craftsmanship, as well as the sophisticated culture that produced them. The amount of research required to curate this show overwhelmed me for a long time, but seeing the great responses from the visitors makes me feel happy to have worked on this project.
We hope you will find the time to visit both venues!
Ukiyoe Spectacular: Japanese woodblock prints from the 1800s
is on display at
The Nikkei National Museum (until March 23, 2014)
6688 Southoaks Crescent, Burnaby, BC
The West Vancouver Museum (until March 22, 2014)
680-17th Street, West Vancouver, BC
Thank you to our supporters:
The West Vancouver Museum, District of West Vancouver, Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, BC Arts Council, Japan Foundation, The Audain Foundation, Deux Mille Foundation, Canadian Society for Asian Arts, The Consulate General of Japan in Vancouver, The Listel Hotel, Vancouver Shinpo, Metro Art & Frame, Henry and Yvonne Wakabayashi.