Japanese Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating World) and other Prints, Paintings

Exhibition: “Japanese Paintings and Prints: Celebrating LACMA’s 50th Anniversary”
July 5, 2015 – September 20, 2015
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Pavilion for Japanese Art, East Wing and The Helen and Felix Juda Gallery

The participation of Japan in the 1862 World Fair in London is notable as a benchmark in the fin de siècle explosion of Japanese culture on the world scene. A growing tremendous popularity — and influence — of Japanese culture accompanied the opening of trade with the formerly closed Japanese society in the years leading up to the World Fair. Contemporary European artists reflected this general cultural interest with a strong interest in Japanese art. James Abbott Whistler was among the first to reflect this in his artwork, to be joined by the Impressionists and Post Impressionists. Degas, Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin quickly come to mind. Both Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh included depictions of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints in various of their artworks. This direct and pervasive influence upon European artists will be explored in later blogs.

Particularly popular were the Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) colored woodblock prints. Ukiyo (floating world) subject matter originally focused upon the Edo (now Tokyo) urban red-light district culture of geisha, samurai, kabuki actors, brothels, sumo wrestlers and the like, with an emphasis upon the pleasure-seeking nature of the activities. An interesting enrichment of meaning, that for those familiar with the Japanese language would be instantly understood, is that the homophone of the word Ukiyo means “sorrowful world.” So, intimately connected to the visual experience of the depictions of life’s pleasures, was perhaps suggested the poignance of the fleeting or illicit nature of those pleasures. The great Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) expanded the floating world subject matter by introducing landscapes and scenes of everyday Japanese life as subject matter. Hokusai’s unrivaled masterpiece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830, 1831, from the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji can be viewed at the current LACMA exhibition: Japanese Paintings and Prints: Celebrating LACMA’s 50th Anniversary. These powerful works inspect life at every level, from the humble to the epic and in doing so remain as compelling today as ever.

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