Brooklyn, NY - The cult of celebrity and the commercialization of art are not unique to the West. In 19th-century Japan kabuki actors and high-priced geishas were idolized by commoners, and the sale of colorful woodcut prints portraying them became a big, competitive business. In 1842, fearing an erosion of national moral fiber, the government reacted to the mania for kabuki and for ukiyo-e, the paintings and prints that depicted the fleeting pleasures of life in the entertainment sectors of major cities. Laws were created to limit the extravagance of kabuki theater and to prohibit yakusha-e (actor prints) and bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). It was as if the United States had clamped down on Hollywood movies, paparazzi and the tabloids.
Looking at Japanese prints today, you might not realize what a rough-and-tumble commercial world they came out of. Their formal elegance, poetic beauty and technical refinement suggest a more serene, creative environment. So “Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900,” an exhibition of many splendid prints at the Brooklyn Museum, offers a useful and informative corrective.
Organized by Laura Mueller, a doctoral candidate in Japanese art history and a curatorial intern at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the show presents 73 woodblock prints from the Van Vleck collection, a renowned repository of more than 4,000 Japanese prints owned by the Chazen. With 22 more prints from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, the exhibition tells the story of a group of artists that dominated the ukiyo-e print business for much of the 19th century.
Utagawa Toyokuni’s “Fireworks at Ryogoku Bridge” (1825) is spectacular. On a two-and-a-half-foot square made by conjoining six prints, it depicts yachts loaded with languid geishas passing under a great wooden bridge, on which a crowd has gathered to observe fireworks bursting against the night sky. With its scores of lively people, precisely delineated details and blocky diagonals thrusting every which way, it is a marvel of formal compaction.
Also extraordinary is Toyohara Kunichika’s dramatic wide-angle picture from 1894 of an actor dressed in a sumptuously patterned costume surrounded by vividly colored flames. With a fierce expression on his face, he poses with extended arms; holding a sword in one hand, he prepares to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.
The exhibition’s sole example of the popular erotica called shunga warrants a close look too. Produced in 1851 by Utagawa Kunisada, “An Illustrated Account of Coupled Genji” consists of three lavishly printed volumes, with double-page spreads showing men and women in luxurious robes engaging in sexual intercourse with delightful urgency.
There are many more compelling works in the show, including land- and seascapes by Utagawa Hiroshige, one of the most famous of all ukiyo-e artists. But there are comparatively nondescript works, too. Prints from the 1770s by Utagawa Toyoharu are historically significant because he founded the Utagawa school and because of his innovative use of Western-style deep perspective. But his blandly illustrative works lack the bold, sensuous qualities of prints by his immediate followers Utagawa Toyohiro and Utagawa Toyokuni.
Judging by the exhibition catalog, which has color reproductions of 213 prints, many quite beautiful, a larger and aesthetically superior exhibition could have been assembled from the Van Vleck collection. But Ms. Mueller’s intent was something other than a “greatest hits” show. She wanted to tell the history of the Utagawa school and, in so doing, convey something of the complexity of the Japanese printmaking business in general. There were so many artists named Utagawa: it was the Japanese custom for successful apprentices to take the names of their revered masters.
You will also learn how Utagawa Toyoharu’s first two students gravitated toward separate areas of specialization: Toyokuni into kabuki actor prints and Toyohiro into landscapes. Subsequent generations of artists further diversified — into warrior prints, mythic parodies and other genres — and they sometimes collaborated. Prints in the show, for example, show how Hiroshige and Kunisada combined transcendentally beautiful landscapes and gorgeously attired women.
The reading material provides insight into the complex relationships among artists, craftsmen who cut the wooden blocks, printmakers who pulled the prints, and patrons and publishers who provided financing. Through the artists’ strategic efforts, the name Utagawa became a brand so powerful that today more than half of all surviving ukioy-e prints are from the Utagawa school. Much of what makes this exhibition enriching may be missed by skipping the catalog.
By . . Ken Johnson
“Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900” is on view through June 15 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; (718) 638-5000, www.brooklynmuseum.org.