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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Overcast
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The world as it was
A print show details Tokyo's vanished past
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The Japanese printmakers have an exquisite sense of design.
The Japanese printmakers have an exquisite sense of design.

While the past is something we often think of as wearing a shroud of mist, a patina of nonreality, it is worthwhile to be vividly reminded that the past was as real to those who lived it as our own era is to us.

The world of Tokyo (then known as Edo) and its popular entertainments in the 18th and 19th centuries is the beating heart of the Chazen Museum of Art's new exhibition, "Competition & Collaboration: Japanese Prints of the Utagawa School." Utagawa School artists were leaders in nearly all genres of ukiyo-e printmaking, such as pictures of beautiful women, portraits of kabuki actors, erotica, warrior prints and landscapes - all of which are represented in this major exhibition of more than 120 color woodcuts.

The prints are drawn from the museum's own Van Vleck Collection of more than 4,000 pieces, one of the United States' finest collections of Japanese prints. This is actually the second time this year that the public has had a chance to see a substantial number of Van Vleck prints, since many were included in "Color Woodcut International." There is very little overlap between the two shows, however, so anyone who enjoyed "International" will certainly want to see this exhibition.

These "pictures of the floating world," as they are known - the world of courtesans, entertainers and the like - have a timeless appeal owing to both the allure of that world and the exquisite sense of design honed by Japanese printmakers. Luckily for viewers, these delicate prints are in excellent condition, their colors unfaded. Elegant lines, rich colors and the judicious use of empty space create prints of lasting impact.

While some prints feature pared-down compositions with only a few elements, many are jam-packed, crammed with fascinating detail. One such example is Utagawa Toyokuni's "Fireworks at Ryogoku Bridge" (c. 1825), a large, multi-sheet print with a dynamic, complex composition. The stylized red bursts of the fireworks actually make up only a small part of the overall composition, confined as they are to the upper left corner. The real show is the bustle of humanity packed on a gently curving bridge to watch the explosions, and the courtesans on the shallow boats below the bridge. One tipsy courtesan appears on the verge of falling overboard.

In this exhibition curated by UW doctoral candidate Laura Mueller, the printmakers of the Utagawa School reveal themselves to be not only masters of design but also of the skillful printing of woodblocks, capturing everything from diaphanous fabrics to smoky shadows. "Competition & Collaboration," with its vivid, pulsing world, will appeal to both scholar and casual viewer alike.

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