On Stage in Osaka and Tradition and Transformation at the MFA
Post #805 • June 7, 2006, 12:38 PM • 15 Comments
On Stage in Osaka presents fifty woodcut prints pulled from the MFA's collection of 1500 of them - and that's just the images produced in Osaka. Press materials accompanying the exhibition report that some others are laying about as well:
These are among thousands of previously uncatalogued prints believed to have been part of a massive gift from William Sturgis Bigelow in 1911. Now, almost 100 years later, they are being recorded, photographed, researched and exhibited for the first time as part of the MFA's Japanese Print Access and Documentation Project whose long-term goal is to photograph and catalogue the Museum's entire collection of some 50,000 Japanese prints and make them available to the public on the MFA Web site at www.mfa.org.
Mr. Calculator tells me that with that many prints, you could spend a year looking at 136 of them a day without repeating any. Go, MFA.
Osaka prints tended to concentrate on kabuki theater, a kaleidoscopic pageant of performance and costuming. You could devote your life to learining about the narratives, which involve heroes, maidens, demons, ghosts, betrayals, suicides, swordfights - the whole arsenal of myth played out with over-the-top exuberance, wild make-up, and sophisticated special effects that made Osaka famous country-wide for its shows. Describing the prints requires superlatives that grate on my sensibilities as a writer, but nothing less will do: exquisite draftsmanship, knockout design, luscious coloration, charming expressiveness, the whole nine yards, although a few of them, admittedly, look pretty odd.
The museum, seemingly unused to blogger-level scrutiny, had no images available for another show in the Japanese rooms, Tradition and Transformation: Japanese Art 1860-1940. Awed by Matthew Perry's stern diplomacy and ferocious gunships, Japan abandoned isolationism after his arrival in 1853, and artistic ideas quickly began to flow both orientally and occidentally. This exhibition features Japanese works that picked up Western influences, and not just traditional prints of daimyo and their families wearing British fashions, although there's a bit of that too. Japanese artists, informed by Western reproductions and art magazines, experimented joyfully with materials and absorbed Art Nouveau as easily as if they had invented it. Notable works include Tomioka Eisen's print of boys playing baseball, Mishima Shoso's pigeons, rendered with Audobon-level realism as they perch among leaves painted with broad strokes of black ink, and Shibata Zeshin's puppies painted on primed paper in lacquer, which makes a black darker than ink itself.
The show dedicates the last room mostly to Hashiguchi Goyo and Onchi Koshiro. Goyo trained in Western-style painting, and a pencil drawing of a nude shows the enormous degree to which he mastered it. When he turned to ukiyo-e, he produced some of the finest examples of female depiction in the history of Japanese art, beautiful as such images always are, but psychological in a way they often aren't. Koshiro took inspiration from Munch, and two images of bathers show him working with breathtaking simplicity. This room may be the best one in the museum at the moment, and the exhibition deserves more play than it's getting.
On Stage in Osaka: Actor Prints from the MFA Collection runs through January 3, 2007. Tradition and Transformation: Japanese Art 1860-1940 runs through November 9, 2006.