One of the five galleries that surround the Chinese Courtyard in the Honolulu Museum of Art is reserved for the ongoing display of 20 or so prints from the museum’s vast collection of Japanese woodblock prints. The exhibit we saw on the day we visited the museum last month is called Dreams of Mount Fuji: Masterpieces of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Japanese Print Collection.
Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanegawa is probably the most famous of all Japanese woodblock prints and was the star attraction of the exhibit. It also was on display for just a few weeks and was then replaced by another Hokusai (Red Fuji) which will show until March 1st when it, too, will be replaced by yet again another work by the same artist, Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit. None of the other prints in the exhibit are involved in any rotation.
Hokusai produced his series called 36 Views of Mt Fuji (there are actually 46 prints in the series) in 1830 when he was 70 years old. The Great Wave is # 1 in that series. The print made its way to western Europe by 1856 and it stunned all onlookers, especially the French Impressionists. Ah, the composition, the colors, the lack of shadows!
Hokusai was one of two masters who lived during Japan’s Golden Age of woodblock printing, roughly 1760 to 1850. The other was Utagawa Hiroshige who also produced a 36 Views of Mt Fuji but is better known for his 53 Stations of the Tokaido (the road between Tokyo — then called Edo — and Kyoto). Japan was closed to western civilization during those days but both artists were aware of western art via China and had obtained the Prussian blue color from Dutch traders (the Netherlands was the only country allowed to trade with Japan).
The Impressionists had never heard of Prussian blue and for awhile referred to it as Hiroshige blue! In order to get a dark blue for their palettes most European artists had to use ultramarine which is obtained from the lapis lazuli stone in Afghanistan and was very expensive. Van Gogh used Prussian Blue in his Starry Night and sometimes created his greens by mixing Prussian Blue with Chrome Yellow.
In my previous posting (see here) I mentioned many of the paintings of 19th century American and European artists that we saw in the Honolulu Museum of Art. Most of these artists were great fans of Japanese woodblock prints. Monet was heavily influenced by Hokusai and had his own copy of The Great Wave. Van Gogh copied a couple of Hiroshige’s great works. Whistler was introduced to Japanese art in France and helped spread that interest to England. Mary Cassatt was also fascinated by the Japanese manner of portraying the human condition and she produced many prints in the Japanese fashion, although she preferred lithographs to woodblocks.
Western Europe was in love with Japanese woodblock prints but the Japanese themselves did not consider these prints fine art. They were but souvenirs for the working class who could obtain a print for the price of a bowl of soup. The prints were called ukiyo-e in Japan which means “floating world” — the impure and often vulgar situations of everyday life as opposed to the pure and beautiful afterlife in Buddhist philosophy.
Many Japanese looked upon Mt Fuji as a sacred mountain and they belonged to a “Fuji cult” traveling from Edo or Kyoto on the Tokaido Road to climb the mountain, much like medieval Christians went on pilgrimages to Canterbury, Santiago or Rome. These Japanese pilgrims in the Hokusai and Hiroshige prints are always moving — on the road, across a bridge, up the mountain. Sometimes the mountain in all its glory is the major figure in the painting; sometimes it is way in the background in favor of an upfront domestic scene.
The quality of woodblock prints in Japan went into a decline after the deaths of Hokusai (1849) and Hiroshige (1858) but was brought back to life in 1907 when Watanabe Shozaburo, then only 22 years old, began publishing prints he called Shin-hanga (“new prints”) in the tradition of the old masters. Watanabe considered himself a master designer and he hired his own artists, carvers and printers to produce his prints. Several of the great Japanese artists of the early 20th century worked for Watanabe, including Hiroaki Shotei. Watanabe would allow Shotei to design the prints that were popular with the tourists while he would personally design what he considered fine art.
Charles Bartlett left for India on his around-the-world trip in 1913 and reached Japan by the end of 1915. He met Watanabe in 1916 and produced a total of 22 prints for him that year. Bartlett collaborated with Watanabe off and on for the next ten years. In 1917 he left Japan for Hawaii and stayed there for the rest of his life. But he would mail his watercolors to Watanabe who would then produce his prints. By 1926, however, Bartlett tired of this collaboration and began to produce his own prints from his own etchings and engravings.
Watanabe’s Shin-hanga lasted until the rise of Japanese militarism in the late 1930s. After World War II it was common to see artists do it all by themselves — painting, carving and printing. This print of an inverted Fuji on a tiled roof was produced by Sekino Junichirö in 1964 and was our docent’s favorite. The roof looks exactly like that on the Honolulu museum!
The print exhibit contained only one Hokusai, four Hiroshiges, two Bartletts, five Shoteis and I think only one Junichiro. Other prints were by Hasui, Yoshida and Kiyochika. Let’s see: the museum has 12,000 woodblock prints and rotates about 20 every 6 weeks or so which comes to about 160 a year. So at that rate it will take 75 years to see all 12,000 prints!