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Part 3 - One day - 3 exhibitions


Ushibori in Hitachi Province, from the series, 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Katsushika Hokusai (c.1760-1849). Woodblock print c.1830-2

Unexpectedly this third exhibition, in Derby Museum and Art Gallery on Friday 29th September, was in fact 2 - one titled 'Powerful Nature: Inspiring Japanese Art and Culture' and the second 'Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Woodblock Prints from the Ashmolean Museum'.

The Powerful Nature exhibition included a variety of paintings and woodblock prints plus other artefacts which demonstrated the recurring theme of the power and beauty of nature in Japanese art.

For me personally the fact there was a print by Katsushika Hokusai on display was enough to entice me as I have studied his work in my degree courses and he has become one of my favourite historical artists. This particular woodblock print is demonstrative of the use of Prussian blue pigment which prior to the late 1820's was prohibitively expense and also difficult to get hold of - the pigment is shown off in all its richness in this typical scene of Japanese life albeit life that tells the stories of the landscape and history of the people.


Eagle pushing a hare. Ohara Koson (1887-1945). Woodblock

It was interesting to see a variety of differing woodblock prints and watercolours with each being the iconic Japanese style - I particularly liked the work of Ohara Koson whose often dramatic depictions of birds and animals were distinctive through their vibrant colour palette and incredible attention to detail and line.

The scene in the image to the left has almost a theatrical dramatic quality about it with a strong clear narrative but with no unnecessary detail needed except for a hint of foliage and this seems to be typical of many woodblock prints - what is needed is included but what is unnecessary to the narrative is left to the viewer to interpret.


Five birds on a branch. Kono Bairei (1844-1895). Watercolour

The watercolours in contrast by Kono Bairei are again iconic of the ukiyo-e or kachoga styles (the latter is a variation of the former). I was particularly drawn to the diptych of 5 birds on a branch due to the delicacy of the palette and line whilst also noting the attention to detail - it is beautifully simplistic but also evocative of perhaps a late summer or autumn's day.

The juxtaposition within this blog of these two images was specifically chosen in order to show the contrasting styles and also the power of nature - one shows a level of brutality due to the predator and its prey whilst the other is a gentler and more serene image and typical of the prints and paintings which were often used to induce meditation on the order of nature or how the people found their place within it.


A beauty of the day. Kitagawa Utamaru (1753-1806). Woodblock print c.1800

Another type of woodblock prints were the ones known as brocade or nishiki-e prints - also known as Bijin-ga which were of beautiful, idealised Japanese women. These women were often geisha who were the highly skilled performers at tea houses or Oiran who set the trends of the day through their dress and arts - the 'it' women of the era! The term nishiki-e was given to the prints due to the elaborate patterns of the kimono's or costumes.

My love of Japanese art comes from my late Mum collecting some ceramic plates of Japanese geisha in the 1980's and hence for me, apart from the work of Hokusai, these are the most compelling and certainly evocative - the style of the kimonos is iconic but I note the way the faces of the ladies are drawn, the attention to detail in line, the palette and even the composition which is striking due the position of the central figure with the two women who I can only presume are her servants or women of lesser status.


Japan and Nature - multiple textile designs. Katie Gilbert. Printed on Duchess satin. 2019

The exhibition also comprises of a suit of armour, a tea set and other artefacts but it also includes a print of multiple designs which is the work of Derby University graduate Katie Gilbert.

Miss Gilbert won a prestigious competition - the Kimono Fabric Design Composition run by the Japan Textile Dyeing Joint Association and the winning design which is the prints of the fans seen top left in my photograph has been shown in Japan, France and Germany.

Miss Gilbert apparently wanted to create a modern, contemporary design but using the hand fan which is an iconic item in Japan - by using bright colours and a repeat pattern which was able to create something which is striking, very beautiful and for me I feel it pays tribute to the Japanese culture beautifully well. The other designs on this piece of satin were created as part of her MA Fashion and Textiles degree studies and inspired by beetles, flowers and Japanese styles with the museum's collection of beetles being a source of inspiration. I love the beetles print but cannot help be drawn to the more traditional floral designs seen on the left hand side in the middle - sometimes you see a design that you just love and this for me is one.

This exhibition as a whole was fascinating to walk around and will be visited again to study in more detail (this was the bonus one on this particular day and deserves a trip of its own!).


Taira no Kiyomori haunted by the spectres (Taira no Kiyomori kaii u miru zo). Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Colour woodblock print. Jennings/Spalding Gift

The second exhibition concerning the Japanese Ghosts and Demons was a total contrast but no less fascinating in some aspects - I am unsure as to what I make of the art work as it is definitively haunting and downright creepy but it also tells the narratives of many Japanese myths or stories which in itself is fascinating.

Information available in the museum speaks of how in the mid 19th century the public was eager for bizarre or macabre imagery and the Japanese ukioy-e woodblock artists of the era competed to satisfy their market. The ghosts and demons of their imagery are based on the tales and folklore of both the native Japanese Shinto religion and also Buddhism which arrived in the 6th century. The information states how ghosts reside literally everywhere from the home, to forests, fields, mountains etc and take many forms from vengeful spirits of wrong women to animals with supernatural powers to the simple objects of the domestic environment and these Obake (the Japanese word for ghost) form the basis for these macabre prints.


Prince Kurokumo and the earth spider (Kurokumo no oji). Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). Series: Beauty and the value in the novel 'Suikoden' (Biyu Suikoden). Colour woodblock print. 1865. Gift of D. Grigs

From an artistic point of view the sheer detail of the prints is quite mind blowing - the detail is unbelievable and I cannot begin to imagine the time and skill it must have taken to create these prints. The colours are incredibly dramatic and enhance the mythological spirits and tales perfectly but the imagination and creativity of the artists for me is possibly the hardest to understand but these tales were well known and inspired by the folklore which was part of everyday normal life.

The style is again iconic particularly in how the faces and clothing is depicted but the monsters and spirits would not look out of place in modern day comic books - Manga is directly derived from these images.

Although this exhibition from a stylistic point of view was my least favourite of the two it was in some ways the most fascinating due to the fact that you were able to read the tales alongside the artwork and therefore understand them with total clarity. However, I do find the depictions of normal Japanese life and nature seen in Hokusai, Koson or Bairei's work more appealing as they speak of the natural surroundings and lives of ordinary Japanese people but both exhibitions combine to inform the viewer of historical Japanese culture. The natural paintings and woodblocks were highly influential on Western artists, particularly the Impressionists, after the trade laws were opened up in the 1860's and 1870's and the art continues to influence artists to this day.

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