Japan is known for its worldwide innovations in technology, transportation, and communication, but this week, the Bowdoin art museum showcases the artistic prowess that emerged from the land of a thousand suns during the 17th and 18th centuries. The exhibit, entitled "Glimpses Into the Floating World: The History of Ukiyo-e," features the works of prominent Japanese artists from the Edo Period (1615-1868).
With the rise of the capital city of Edo in Japan, today known as Tokyo, came the newly instituted influence of the city's artists and merchants. These revolutionaries, who had previously been discouraged from practicing their crafts, rose in esteem and their works became highly coveted.
The exhibit, which is comprised of woodblock prints by a number of different artists, is astounding in its myriad of colors, styles, and compositions. Popular subjects used in typical Ukiyo-e prints were beautiful women (bijin), landscapes (sansui), and birds on flowers (kacho). Inspired by original Chinese work, these Japanese artists often tried to tell a story within their prints.
The influence of these prints on Japanese culture was immediate, and people traded replicas on cards and paper. With the influx of merchant ships to Japan, Ukiyo-e was spread west to Europe and later America. Ukiyo-e artists also made an impact on their contemporaries such as artists Manet, Monet, Degas, Whistler, and Van Gogh.
Some of the most impressive works in the Bowdoin collection include images of geishas in a brothel, spring birds on a twig of berries, and serene mountain tops shrouded in fog.
"Courtesans in a Brothel" by Utagawa Yoskiiku consists of one continuous image over two different woodblock prints. Yoskiiku incorporates both the traditional landscape and more controversial and taboo subject of sex. Exhilarating colors dazzle the eye and complex detail are unfathomable to comprehend.
"Actors in A Dragon Ship" by Utagawa Kunisado is in a similar mold, using bright color and facial expression to tell a story. A play within a print, this work is meant to force a smile.
"An Evening in a Hot Spring" by Hiroshi Yoshida depicts a solitary house on the base of a dark mountain and on the edge of a serene lake. Yoshida uses reflection to enhance the inviting glow of the lighted windows and the shadowy quality of the light suggests a misty and mysterious air.
"Two Birds on a Bough" by Ohara Koson completes the tour of Ukiyo-e prints. Koson's use of complimentary colors in the two birds sitting on a red berry twig catches the eye and calms the mind after the complexity of Yoskiiku's and Kunisado's respective works.
These works are pervasive throughout both the art world and contemporary society. They are an enchanting look into Japan at the very origins of its economic and cultural boom. These artists helped shape the way Japan is structured today. The exhibit will be on display in the Walker Art Building until June 22.