Imai Yosuke, Sonar A “Hogo", etching, aquatint, 1996
Modern Japanese Prints
November 7, 1998 - February 28, 1999
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
When the gates of Japan opened to the West in the second half of the nineteenth century during the Meiji Restoration (1868), a new era began, characterized by modernisation and industrial development. These processes gave much impetus to the politics, economy and culture of the country. As a result of these economic and cultural connections with the western world, many Japanese artists came to study art in Europe. When they returned to Japan they initially paid scant attention to such traditional Japanese art forms as ink drawing and woodblock printing, deriving their cultural inspiration from European art, in particular the techniques of oil painting. However, becoming aware of the influence of the traditional Japanese woodblock prints on western art, and the high esteem in which they were held by the European Post-Impressionists, Japanese artists once more began to respect their traditions.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a small group of Japanese artists created a movement known as the "Sosaku Hanga" (Creative Prints) which recognized, in this acceptance of western art, a danger to their traditional culture. They wanted to preserve the techniques of woodblock printing, apart from realising that the oil medium did not really suit the character of their art. Hence they returned to the woodblock technique with its long and illustrious tradition in Japan, but selected new subjects having no connection with the classical motifs, the Kabuki actors, beautiful women, birds, flowers, and famous views, like the ukiyo-e - the "floating world", characteristic of Japanese art from the 17th century until the 19th century. The traditional prints had been created by three artists - the artist who made the original drawing, the wood-carver who prepared the block, and the printer. The print was then transferred to the publisher, who also had a say in the selection of subjects. Conversely, the modern artists, as in the West, prepare all stages of the process, considering this as a part of their artistic expression which includes their own personal vision. Thus, to the traditional techniques of woodblock printing were added those adapted from the West - lithography, silk screen, etching and engraving, and figurative motifs were displayed side by side with abstractions which expressed the interior world of each artist.
Artistic abstraction and aesthetic values such as minimalism and symbolism, which appeared in the West only at the beginning of the 20th century, are evident in Japanese art even in the ink drawings of the Zen artists, and in the Noh Theatre which developed in the 14th century. In Zen art and in traditional theatre, the empty space ("ma") plays a central role and carries a value at least equal to that of the object depicted in the work. The Zen drawings expressed a whole universe in line and subject, and in the empty space which occupied most of the picture. In the Noh Theatre, the actors often ‘freeze' during a performance, remaining motionless and thus accentuating the space surrounding them.
An awareness which divides reality by means of concepts is a strange idea in the Far East, especially for those who accept the Buddhist philosophy. This philosophy negates any dualism concerning, for instance, matter and spirit, space and object, life and death.
This refusal to separate the world into details or discrete objects, detached from each other and from their environment is, in fact, the Japanese cultural paradigm. The psychologist Kimura Bin, in his book "Between Man and Man" (Hito to Hito no Aida; 1972), and the sociologist Hamaguchi Eshun, insist that the object to which one relates in Japanese society is not individual, as in the West, but rather the relationship with others, i.e. the whole social entity. Social relations construct the personal identity of the individual, building in "space" the relationship between man and man. As with the singular identity of the individual, the actual creation of a work of art in Japan lies in the space between object and object, and not necessarily in the object itself. Just as, in Japanese culture, the individual is part of the whole of society, so too in art object and space are one indivisible unit. It appears that, as in Japanese psychological and sociological theory, so in art, the real work is concealed in space.
In modern Japanese art, as in the traditional, space and object are actually a single entity. The placement of object and space, their juxtaposition on the same plane in the composition, gives them equal value, which is also not foreign to the traditional art of the Japanese woodblock print. In both modern and traditional, the relationship to the paper is to a two-dimensional area, and there is an emphatic refusal to create a three-dimensional illusion. The object depicted is not ‘something' surrounded by ‘nothing'. The element of empty space has identical value with line and form, its contribution is vital in creating a balanced work. This balance is rarely achieved by symmetry, but rather by the relationship between image and space.
The exhibition displays prints by thirty-one contemporary Japanese artists working in different styles, but their traditional concept of space has been the source of inspiration for many of them. Even though the modes of expression of these artists are similar to those of the West, they embody the traditional Japanese view of existence. It seems that, in these prints the concept of the empty space has not changed, and this is evident even in the titles which many of the artists have given to their works - Space, Reflection, Separation, Face, Sonar, Mirage, and others. There are many different print techniques, the common means of expression, and the diversity of content expresses the artists' desire to convey universal motifs from their own personal and individual point of view.