Woodblock prints, especially in the genre known as ukiyo-e, are one of the most distinctive and recognizable features of Japanese culture. Images created by the mid 18th century print-making giants,which adorn coffee mugs, t-shirts, stationery, calendars, decks of cards and the whole gamut of souvenir shop shlock, are still considered to be the quintessential Japanalia. And though Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro and Sharaku are not quite household names,they are extremely well-known and universally aclaimed. Their works can be found in many of the great museums of the world and certainly in the art sections of every good bookstore.
For most non-Japanese, knowledge about and interest in Japanese prints usually ends with the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan's colossal effort at westernization and modernization. This is probably due to westerner's desire for still MORE classic Japonica and exotica, as opposed to what is deemed to be an imitation or shadow of western styles. Though many talented and fascinating artists have kept the flame of print-making alive over the traumatic century and a half since the end of the feudal period it is unfortunate that so few westerners (or Japanese for that matter) can be said to be acquainted with the works of artists such as Koshiro Onchi, Shiko Munakata, or Sumio Kawakami.
The Ibaraki Prefecture Tsukuba Art Museum has put together a fine retrospective of one the above-mentioned artists, which might possibly trigger off an interest in the identity-struggle laden works of Japan's post-Meiji print-makers.
Sumio Kawakami was born in 1895 in Yokohama, one of the enclaves first opened up to foreigners in the 19th century, and he studied print making at Aoyama Gakuin High School. It was this early exposure to the exotic which might have inspired him as a young man to spend 2 years travelling abroad, in Alaska, Canada and the US. When first entering the current exhibit, I was struck by the brilliant impression this North American experience made on the young artist. All along the wall on the right side of the narrow entrance corridor hang the strikingly colorful and vivid prints from a series entitled Alaskan Tale (1966). Created 50 years after his journeys, the artist seems to be savoring the memories of his youthful adventures. With surprising uses of color and line, Kawakami takes us back to a Russian Alaska and a one horse town Seattle.
When he returned to Japan, he worked as an English teacher, but kept up his print-making and poetry writing activities until his death in 1972. He won numerous awards and even has a museum dedicated to his works in Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture.
Just as Japan was in flux, Sumio Kawakami created works in a variety of styles. I found myself absorbed in his work, searching for meaning. A few key motifs can be seen to run through all his pieces. Old style European oil lamps (symbols of enlightened civilization?), the Dutch in Nagasaki (cultural exchange or the good old days of seclusion?), and westernized Japanese cities and other facades (change is only external and superficial?). The more I looked, the more questions I had. Surely I would be doing a disservice to you if I filled your heads with my own interpretations of these sometimes intriguing works. I can assure you, however, that those of you who have been living as expatriates as long as I have will be able to identify with Kawakami's struggle to find an identity.
This one is surely worth checking out and it only costs 300 yen. Kudos to the curators for putting together a good show. Until May 27th.
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