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Western Accent

Japanese printmakers stay true to their culture while borrowing from the West.

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"Man of Valor," by Yoshitoshi Mori, stencil print.
  • "Man of Valor," by Yoshitoshi Mori, stencil print.

Throughout the centuries, the Japanese have been masters at assimilating different cultures without losing their own. A compelling new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, called East Meets West: Tradition and Innovation in Modern Japanese Prints, demonstrates how this process has played itself out with respect to Western influences.

Modern Japanese printmaking has achieved a preeminent position in the art world. Over 70 works are on view in the show, which serves as an overview of recent developments in this artistic medium. To Curator Shelley R. Langdale's credit, there is no suspicion of glibness in this expansive exhibit. In fact, the creative sequencing of these works tells a convincing story. It starts with those that depict a kind of timeless Japan, a space rarely inhabited by people, but instead charged with the daily rhythms of nature. This is the baseline from which the exhibit is then built. The prints become more eclectic as the artists delve into subjects like the pressures of modern life and the rapid disappearance, due to technological progress, of once-familiar rural landscapes.

There is also evidence of discontent with prevailing Japanese social structures, as one female artist, rejecting the submissive roles imposed on women, depicts a traditionally male Buddhist deity as a woman swimming nude in the ocean. Despite the tensions that swirl about in Japanese political and social life, the exhibit periodically returns to images of a timeless Japan. A stark print of half a pomegranate or an abacus here suggests that, underneath the flux of modern living, there is a deeper rhythm, which remains undisturbed. Artists, even as they sop up international influences or rebel against entrenched ideas, are nevertheless aware of this rhythm.

The show convincingly proves that Japanese printmakers have been able to use Western artistic methods while setting them to an indigenous beat. Langdale describes the Japanese printmakers in this show as artists who are able to "digest and synthesize Western approaches and techniques without adopting them wholesale, remaining true to an essentially Japanese aesthetic." The fascinating thing to note is that, while the artists here were eager to learn about what other practitioners in their field were doing, they retained their individuality even as they borrowed the devices of others. Hiroshi Yoshida's color woodcuts depicting the same scene at different times of the day recall Western impressionist paintings such as Claude Monet's famous haystack series. But since Yoshida's "Sailboats: Morning" and "Sailboats: Afternoon" (both 1926) place the focus on the progression of day to night, as opposed to the French emphasis on the artist, these works have a self-denying simplicity that seems specifically Japanese.

The general notion of artists borrowing technique but doing so intelligently resonates deeply with other art forms. Beethoven's music, scholars now tell us, might not have taken some of the turns it did if the Bonn master hadn't known contemporaneous works by now-obscure composers of the French Revolution like Gossec and Méhul. Thus this show, while it is ostensibly about Japanese printmaking, is also about a much larger issue: the ways in which talented artists transform (as opposed to copy) the ideas they come into contact with.

Most of the prints represent sosaku-hanga ("creative print") artists. Inspired by the Western emphasis on individualism, these artists performed all aspects of the process by themselves: creating the print, drawing the design, cutting the blocks, and finally, printing with care so that the colors would be aligned. This was in contrast to the traditional Japanese manner in which each part of the process was performed by a different person, with the artist serving only as designer.

Aside from adopting the general working method, some of these artists drew explicitly on Western influences in the way they chose to treat their subject matter. An example is Koshiro Onchi in his "Mother and Child," a 1917 woodcut in black and gray. Onchi, a key figure in the sosaku-hanga movement, admired the emotion-laden expressionist style of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, and that kinship can be felt in this print. Instead of portraying the woman's body conventionally, the artist emphasizes a breast and a thigh and downplays facial characteristics. He isn't interested in this particular woman (or the child she holds), but rather in the idea of an all-consuming kind of nurture. Onchi encloses the figures in a womblike shape, which he has created by cutting, gouging, and scraping a series of wave-like forms. Onchi was one of the first artists of his time to regard printmaking as a major creative outlet, of an importance equal to painting. With this early representational work (later in his career, he would create powerful abstract prints), he states his case with conviction.

Artists like Shiko Munakata are oriented more to traditional Japanese imagery, and their work contrasts sharply with images such as Onchi's universalized "Mother and Child." Munakata's "Tree," a lithograph, shows a tree rendered in violent calligraphic gestures. The impression is one of great speed, as though Munakata wanted to suggest all of nature with a few well-placed marks. This is not a Western tradition (the marks derive from the ink-brush drawing tradition practiced by the medieval Japanese scholar-painters), but the turbulent gestures are also similar to those found in paintings by Van Gogh in the late 19th century. The important thing is that Munakata, in such works, combines a characteristically Japanese sensibility with a brand of restlessness and turbulence that resonates clearly in the West.

Certainly a sense of stress is recognizable in a 1979 work called "Bicycle and Glass No. 2," by Shigeki Kuroda. The artist depicts a group of cyclists pedaling furiously, while a triangular structure above their heads seems ready to crush them. Viewing the scene, one recalls political scientist Louis D. Hayes's description of how the Japanese appear to many casual (non-Japanese) observers: "They appear to go about their business in groups of varying sizes at a pace reminiscent of the exaggerated hurriedness of a silent movie." As Hayes is quick to point out, this stereotype hardly tells the whole story. By deftly summing up a stereotypically Western view of his world, Kuroda is critiquing contemporary Japanese life. But, while Westerners might find fault simply because "groupism" is a concept that threatens their individuality, Kuroda might, on the other hand, be encouraging his cyclists to step back for a moment and think about where they are going. This seemingly Western print might be one of the works in the show that only a Japanese person can truly understand.

By contrast, some of the most overtly Japanese work in the show is far less hermetic. The colorful 1972 stencil print called "Man of Valor," by Yoshitoshi Mori, adopts a visual vocabulary based on Kabuki theater and Japanese folk tales. The impression is one of brightness, festivity, and national pride. On the other end of the spectrum are two quieter yet masterly prints by Ryohei Tanaka. As Langdale's informative wall text suggests, Tanaka's work is a "fusion of the Western technique of etching with the flat forms . . . of traditional [Japanese] woodcuts." While his technique is a mixture of East and West, Tanaka's subject matter is purely Japanese. In a 1982 work called "Quiet Day in Ohara," he depicts a traditional thatched Japanese farmhouse, the kind that is disappearing from a technologically advanced Japan.

Finally, the exhibit also has some examples by Western artists who have looked to Japan for inspiration. This process of borrowing, learning, and transforming is not merely a Japanese phenomenon, Langdale is telling us; it is an artistic phenomenon that cuts across history, culture, and medium. This is what creative dialogue is all about, and gifted artists can benefit enormously from it. Margaret Kennard Johnson's quietly powerful "Harvest" of 1976 is a work that the artist created to express her fascination with the forms of rice bundles she observed on a trip to Japan. It demonstrates how an American artist can sympathetically interpret traditional images.

The artists in this exhibit learned from the experiences of others, borrowed from them when necessary, and yet remained true to their own identity. That kind of groundedness and creative strength is not often in evidence in the contemporary art world, where fads and gimmicks often get the most attention. Thus, insightful shows like this are not merely instructive, they are necessary.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at charles.yannopoulos@clevescene.com.

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