Chazen Museum of Art
Hashiguchi Goyo (Japanese, 1880–1921), <i>Underrobe</i> (Nagajuban), 5/1920, color woodcut, panel: 439 x 136 mm. Bequest of John H. Van Vleck, 1980.707
Among its many cultural contributions, Japan is known for its highly refined printmaking traditions. Luckily for Madisonians, the UW's Chazen Museum of Art has a strong collection of Japanese prints, some of which are on display in "The Hanga Traditions: Twentieth-Century Japanese Woodcuts" through Jan. 15.
The show, in the Mayer Gallery of the museum's original building, illustrates how printmaking diverged in the last century, with some artists adhering to more traditional techniques and subjects and others moving in a more experimental direction (the shin hanga and sosaku hanga camps, respectively).
While shin hanga practitioners generally stuck to a 19th-century, workshop-style approach, sosaku hanga artists felt that the designer of a print should also be the one to cut the blocks and print them.
Even for viewers not terribly interested in this historical background, what's on the walls is pretty beguiling, and it's easy to see the difference between the two approaches. Take two prints with similar subjects, Hashiguchi Goyo's Underrobe (1920) as compared to Mitsutani Kunishiro's Nude Woman on Blanket (c. 1935). Although only 15 years separate them, they're worlds apart stylistically.
Underrobe is meticulous and elegant in its composition. As a woman ties her patterned robe, the sash momentarily held in her mouth, the strands of her hair are remarkably detailed. The dusty red butterfly-and-floral pattern on the robe contrasts with creamy expanses of skin that are formed by unprinted areas on the paper, a nifty and economical design solution.
Nude Woman on Blanket, although also a color woodcut, has a loose, free quality that makes it seem more like a lithograph (in lithography, one can draw freely on a stone and then print from it, as opposed to carving away at a block to make a woodcut). Both the flowing lines and the informality of the subject call to mind European artists like Matisse. Instead of Goyo's fine detail, Kunishiro depicts his woman elementally: slits for eyes, a single slash for a nose, two lines for a mouth.
One can find a similar contrast between the work of Hiroshi Yoshida and his son Toshi. The elder Yoshida's 1925 print Above the Clouds (from the series The Southern Japan Alps) is sublime, with its hovering viewpoint and gentle gradations of color. His son's 1964 print, Mystery, has a funky, clearly mid-century quality, with strange symbols on a rich purple background. Majestic nature scenes have given way to quirky abstraction.
This small show covers a lot of ground, ranging as it does from the early 20th century to the 1990s. While Japanese printmakers may have been duking it out for their favored artistic direction, fortunate viewers don't have to take sides.