Afloat in Edo
A new showcase for one of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s strongest collections
WHITTIER — The colorful woodblock prints of Edo-period Japan known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” were the Vogue fashion spreads of their day.
An expert makes that analogy midway through the audio guide that accompanies “Edo Pop,” an expansive new exhibition drawn from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ deep collection of the prints. But by that point some viewers, having just floated past a kaleidoscopic array of kimonos worn in layers of contrasting patterns, will have arrived at the same thought independently.
Indeed, the era’s (1615–1868) rising middle class, or “chonin” — whose increasingly comfortable, urban existence was the “floating world” — looked to the prints for fashion cues. And, in a culture where nudity was associated with the sweaty labor of the lower classes, the kimono was sexy.
The emphasis on a glamour just out of reach of the typical chonin, if not for financial then possibly class reasons in pre-modern Japan’s stratified society, is pervasive in the ukiyo-e genre depicting the fabulous courtesans of the major cities’ pleasure districts, where legalized prostitution was available to those who could afford it. The fascination with wealth, beauty and celebrity — especially kabuki theater actors — seems familiar and modern.
With more than 150 ukiyo-e on display, it’s the images that depart from genre formulas that most linger in the memory, including Kitagawa Utamaro’s triptych from 1797–1798 of fisherwomen resting on shore after diving for abalone. These sturdy, working-class women, stripped to the waist, wring seawater from their underskirts and comb their dripping hair, and they couldn’t be more unlike the dainty courtesans with their pincushion coiffures.
After a long, self-imposed isolation, Japan reopened its ports to international trade near the end of the Edo period, and ukiyo-e began to appear in the West in great numbers for the first time in the late 1800s. They caused a sensation.
Ukiyo-e still entrance, and the show’s subtitle — “The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints” — makes clear why. Scenes are filled with expanses of flat color and repeated patterns untouched by shading, traditional perspective is mostly absent and shapes are simplified. It’s a sleek, modern look.
Idealized human figures are described in delicate outline. So often, a single line runs down the brow, continues along the cheek and then curls under the chin. Fingers are links of plump sausages; smiling lips, a sideways heart.
Tastes in ukiyo-e evolved, and some of the more popular prints of the late Edo period depict landscapes and plants and animals, or even scenes from popular plays and folktales. Excerpts from Katsushika Hokusai’s 100-print series inspired by Japanese ghost stories are among the most gripping images in the exhibition, particularly one of a betrayed husband’s flame-licked skull as it hovers over his ex-wife’s bed.
Hokusai also created many well-known nature prints, and one of his chief competitors in this genre was Utagawa Hiroshige, whose series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” revels the variations of light, season and weather and their impact on the landscape. It would be a fitting way to end the exhibition (although it continues on to show the lasting influence of ukiyo-e on modern art): watching two masters of the form bring ukiyo-e to new heights.
Go see it
“Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints” runs through Jan. 8 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 870-3000. artsmia.org.
Denomie on paper
KENWOOD — The Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding side-by-side past barren mesas, across a desert littered with rocks, bleached cow skulls and, anachronistically, a soda can.
“You lied to me!” says Tonto.
“Get used to it,” the Lone Ranger replies.
This kind of wry humor is typical of work by Jim Denomie, recently off a two-week residency at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, a non-profit printmaking studio in Pendleton, Ore., that works primarily with Native American artists. Denomie, who is Ojibwe, is now showing several dozen of the prints he created this spring at Crow’s Shadow, some of the first works on paper by an artist primarily known as a painter.
The medium seems suited to Denomie’s bold, idiosyncratic use of color. The monoprinting process allows him to experiment with color and mood, printing several vastly different versions of a scene of a man and woman paddling a canoe together through the woods — one hot, one cool.
A series of Denomie’s imaginary portraits — variations on the same head-and-shoulders format — are a creative sandbox for an artist with a formidable imagination and Technicolor vision.
Go see it
“Jim Denomie: Works on Paper” runs through Nov. 19 at Bockley Gallery, 2123 W. 21st St. 377-4669. bockleygallery.com.