From Ads to High Art

Sometimes, a culture fails to recognize the value of something that's so familiar. Such is the case with beautiful Japanese woodblock paintings, an art form that once had little to no value in Japan that is displayed as high art in Pictures of the Floating World: Life in 19th Century Japan, an exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Curator Lauren Rabb didn't know much about 19th-century Japan until the exhibit came to fruition, but she said she was excited when she saw how interesting each of the images were. The prints are part of the UAMA permanent collection, and there were 90 from which to choose. Eventually, 45 were selected for the exhibit.

"At first, we narrowed it down to about 60 woodblock prints," said Rabb. "But we cut more out until we had the woodblocks that we felt best exemplified life in 19th-century Japan."

The works in the exhibit can effectively be placed into five categories: portraits of geisha and courtesans; theater prints; mythical and historical scenes; landscape prints; and shunga (erotic images).

Portraits of geisha, or famous women, and courtesans are the most widely seen images in the woodblocks; according to Rabb, these beautiful women were a favorite subject for woodblock artists.

There are also numerous theater scenes and pictures of actors. Rabb said these actors would have been very recognizable in their times. "If you saw a poster of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, you'd obviously know who they were right away," she said. "These actors featured in the kabuki theater-scene prints would have had that same sort of recognition."

Mythical and historical prints are also prevalent, though in the exhibit, there are more historical examples. Two walls of the exhibit are dedicated entirely to the woodblocks of artist Ando Hiroshige, which depict images from everyday life in 19th-century Japan. His images show the risks of traveling through Japan, the power of the daimyo (comparable to the nobles of England) over the people, and even the punishments for serious crimes.

"There is one Hiroshige portrait that shows what the punishment for murder would be in 19th-century Japan," said Rabb. "These punishments included being sawed in half, crucifixion, beheading, being stoned and all sorts of ugly stuff."

One particularly interesting work on display shows what happened when Japan opened up their ports to the Western world. An image entitled "An American Couple," by artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, depicts a young American couple in Yokohama, which, at the time, was the only place in Japan where Americans were allowed to live.

Apparently, it was also popular for woodblock artists to try to re-create poetic scenes through their art. Hyakunin isshu was a popular form of poetry in the era, in which 100 poets would contribute their poems to a single compilation. A woodblock portrait created by artist Katsushika Hokusai re-creates one such scene.

"These woodblocks are fascinating," said Rabb. "There were literally hundreds of ways for these artists to imagine these poems, so it's interesting to see what they actually came up with."

In Japan, woodblock prints were mostly seen as mere advertisements, and were not traditionally thought of in artistic terms. It wasn't until these paintings were introduced to the Western world that they gained any value.

"These weren't valued much in Japan," said Rabb. "But the Japanese people would use the woodblocks to wrap their exports ... so people in the Western world would get a vase or something wrapped in woodblocks and become enamored with them."

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