The one that started it all.
Welcome to our art store, Art-Eclectic. We have an affinity for 20th century Japanese woodblock prints, but will also be offering Western art that we have collected over the years as well as some woodblocks from the 19th century.
This month we are returning to the theme of Yokohama Prints – scenes of Westerners around the treaty port of Yokohama done in the last years of the Edo period before the Meiji Restoration, roughly 1855-1868. The story begins with the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry.
Naval Officer Matthew Perry had a long distinguished career in the US Navy starting in 1809 as a midshipman. By the time he arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853, he had been on many ships and had reached the rank of Commodore which was an operation title for the commander of a squadron of ships in those days. He had some notable actions prior to that. He claimed Key West for the US in 1822. During the 1830s he was commandant of the New York Navy Yard. He oversaw construction of the Navy’s second steam frigate USS Fulton, which he commanded after its completion. He is called “The Father of the Steam Navy”, and he organized America’s first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first US naval gunnery school from 1839-1841. He saw plenty of action during the Mexican-American war by capturing Mexican port cities and personally leading a 1,173-man landing force that attacked and took the city of San Juan Bautista from land.
While Perry was going up the ranks, Japan remained in a state of feudal isolation with a policy that had led to 250 years of national seclusion. During this time Japan had developed a unique culture that we are still exploring today. But in 1852, it also meant that whaling sailors who shipwrecked off Japan could expect imprisonment or execution if they came ashore. It was also at a time of power projection by America. Coaling stations were needed to resupply US ships in the Far East along with new trading partners. The desire to have a US presence in the Far East caused Pres Millard Fillmore to dispatch Commodore Perry with a squadron of ships whose mission was to force the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. Perry made 2 trips to Tokyo Bay. On his first trip, he did some saber rattling by firing his 73 cannon on the 4th of July. Shortly after, he presented letters to the Japanese emperor before leaving port for a trip to Hong Kong. The following year of 1854, after initial resistance, Perry was permitted to land at Kanagawa, near the site of present-day Yokohama on March 8, and the treaty known as the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on 31 March. Over time, the treaty was accepted by the Shogun who was actually the de facto ruler and other treaties were executed with the European nations that also wanted to trade in the Far East: Great Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands who along with the US were known as the 5 Treaty Nations. This group of nations was allowed to set up portage and warehouses in the city of Yokohama along with allowing their representatives to live there.
Once re-opened, the Japanese people were both amazed and interested in the habits of these foreigners, along with their dress, culture, and technology. They had never seen anything like it. As the main way to provide pictures to the masses, woodblock prints were used to fill the thirst for knowledge. Woodblock print teams produced a dazzling array of images of foreigners often depicting those things that the Japanese knew least about but were commonplace to the Americans and Europeans. Prints frequently display images of people eating with silverware, drinking from stemware, and smoking cigarettes. There is a great interest in the uniforms that the military men wore. You will find all manner of wonky epaulets in these images, along with military men in baggy pants. There is interest in the women as well. No one is quite sure where the feathered headdresses came from, but many prints depict women wearing them as they ride horses or go about daily life with their families. Children and their activities were also of interest to the curious Japanese. And the Japanese love of technology meant that ships, trains, and hot air balloons were the focus of many a print.
The initial prints around the late 1850s and early 1860s have a thoroughly Japanese feel often lacking in single point perspective and noted for the ukiyo-e style poses of the characters. By the end of the 1860s, the prints have become much more lifelike and feature a western perspective. The sophistication of these later prints demonstrate the way Japan is about to rush forward to modernity in an effort to catch these foreign nations and the degree to which the Shogun’s national seclusion is at an end. The prints are a wonderful snapshot of about a dozen years that saw the end of the Edo period with the Meiji Restoration. My late father-in-law collected these prints as examples of the long relationship between the US and Japan. He served 2 tours in Japan as a diplomat after WW2 when he acquired many of his prints. He continued to do so through the rest of his life and later gave the best of his collection to the Smithsonian where they are today. He enjoyed looking at these prints and often remarked on how they could be viewed on different levels – as culture, history, technology, and most of all, as works of art.
(Previous Theme) This month our theme is artist Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka (1839-1892) – the last great master of the ukiyo-e genre of woodblock printing.
Yoshitoshi is also regarded as one of the form’s greatest innovators. His career began during the last few years of the Edo period and flourished during the first years of modern Japan following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Like many Japanese, Yoshitoshi was interested in new things from the rest of the world, but over time he became increasingly concerned with the loss of many aspects of traditional Japanese culture, among them traditional woodblock printing. By the end of his career, Yoshitoshi was in an almost alone in his struggle against time and technology. As he worked on in the old manner, Japan was adopting Western mass reproduction methods like photography and lithography. Nonetheless, in a Japan that was turning away from its own past, he almost singlehandedly managed to push the traditional Japanese woodblock print to a new level. Prints from several of his series such as “100 Aspects of the Moon” and “Warriors Trembling with Courage” are highly sought by collectors. At several points in his life, his work turned dark as he was plagued by mental illness. During these times, his designs would incorporate murder, torture and plenty of blood. His most brilliant work came near the end of his life before his mental problems returned. He was plagued by delusions and ended up in a mental institution for much of the last year of his life. He was released in May 1892 and died a month later of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53.
Visit the artist page for the full list of his work for sale.
(Previous Theme) This month our theme is artist Kogyo, Tsukioka (1869-1927) – master of the Noh print.
Noh is a major form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Like Kabuki, it is highly stylized. Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, deities, and demons.
Kogyo’s work vividly portrays the traditional theater of Noh. He created over 550 prints, in three major print series, documenting Noh performances, with focus on the costumes and poses of the actors. These prints appeared in magazines, books and posters. At the age of fifteen he apprenticed with the great woodblock artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who had married his mother. Yoshitoshi and Chikanobu are probably the most popular artists of the Meiji era. Kogyo’s interest in Noh was likely sparked by Yoshitoshi, who also had a lifelong fascination with Noh. He went on to study with the woodblock artist Ogata Gekko and developed a style that synthesized Western and traditional Japanese artistic styles. The Noh prints created by Kogyo serve as an artistically elegant and beautiful record of this theatrical genre’s customs and performances.
(Previous Theme) This month our theme is not an artist or era, but the many bridges seen in Japanese prints.
Woodblock print artists have a love affair with bridges, known as bashi in Japanese. Sometimes the bridge is the focus of the print, such as the famous Half Moon Bridge depicted by several prominent artists, such as Toshi Yoshida. It is a complex bridge which uses the structural engineering of the arch. Although arches have were used in the West since Roman times to build bridges and other structures, the arch was not a feature of Japanese architecture. Unfortunately, arched construction has limitations on size. In order to span larger bodies of water, the builders have to resort to a series of arches such as the Kintai bridge which was depicted by Tokuriki and others. Often the bridge is seen as a backdrop to the real action such as Tokuriki’s delightful play of fireflies at night next to the Uji river bridge, or Hiroshige’s iconic print of drenched pedestrians (Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge).
You can see all the bridges in our web store by clicking on the magnifying glass in the upper right hand corner and then typing “bridge” into the search box and hitting enter. By the way, using the search feature is a great way to look for artists, locations, or even themes such as birds, snow, children, cherry blossoms, etc. Stay safe and keep looking at art!