05 March 2013

Smith College: Collecting the Art of Asia


Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) in Northampton, Massachusetts, has a show up right now (through May 26, 2013) called “Collecting the Art of Asia” that should be of interest to printmakers, especially those working with woodblock/mokuhanga. The exhibition, which highlights the Museum's holdings of Asian art, includes one large room (shown above) dedicated to prints by artists from Japan, China, Korea, and Pakistan created between 1950 and the present day. I present here a few of the Japanese prints I saw at SCMA.

Most of the Japanese prints come from the 20th century sosaku hanga movement, which is distinct from traditional Japanese woodblock. Whereas in traditional woodblock three different artisans do the three different aspects of making the print—designing, carving, and printing—the sosaku artist does all three. I would venture to say that an artist who can do all three of these tasks with equal skill is very rare. Most woodblock printers that I know love one or another of these tasks more than the others and are usually better at that one.

Winter in Aizu (5) by Kiyoshi Saito
Kiyoshi Saito loved design and composition the best. This print was the favorite at the exhibit for both me and my partner Lynn who came with me. Lynn, in fact, choked up in front of it, a testament to the print's power to evoke a mood. Saito is one of the Japanese sosaku (creative) artists who I most admire, and I had never seen this particular iteration (#5) of a favorite topic of his, Aizu in winter. These black and white prints, made in the 1940s, depict scenes from his childhood home of Aizu, located in Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. For me, the balance of the various gray tones, the composition, and the many textures that Saito coaxes out of the wood and the water-borne inks all inspire and instruct me as a printmaker. If I had produced this print myself, I would have laid down my tools and taken a rest.

I have a book written by Oliver Statler in the late 1950s called “Modern Japanese Prints” in which many sosaku hanga artists are interviewed, including Saito. His words about craft vs. art resonate with me:
For me, the joy of making a print is not in working with the materials but in creating the design… When I'm trying for a new or complicated effect I have to do the work myself  even though I don't especially enjoy it. I'm amused—and a little annoyed—by people who talk about some of my effects as though they were happy accidents. These people seem to think we modern artists let our medium control us. I scheme and work and sweat over my prints. Making a woodcut is much too strenuous to let accidents determine results.
Onchi Koshiro, 1952 by Jun'ichiro Sekino (and Lynn for scale)
A recent acquisition at SCMA is a well-known print by Jun'ichiro Sekino, a portrait of his mentor Koshiro Onchi. I've never seen this print anywhere but on the internet, and I assumed it was much smaller than it is. Unlike Saito, who disliked the drudgery of printmaking, Sekino seemed to love it. His portrait prints, like this one, are masterpieces of technique. Unlike Saito’s prints, I can’t mentally deconstruct these into their component blocks.

Woodblock print by Hidehiko Goto
Hidehiko Goto is a printmaker who is also one of a very few professional baren makers in Japan. (A baren is a flat bamboo-covered disk that is used to transfer ink from block to paper to make a print.) Goto's print work focuses on texture and composition.

Hidehiko Goto demonstrating the making of a baren at the First International Mokuhanga Conference in Kyoto, 2011

A print by Ansei Uchima

Ansei Uchima (1921-2000) was a Japanese-American artist who was introduced to sosaku hanga through his job as a translator for Oliver Statler. Unlike Saito, Uchima loved the “happy accidents” of printmaking and used them to great advantage. His prints are abstract and experimental.

Seated Buddha – Abhaya Mudra by Sopheap Pich

There are many other beautiful objects at SCMA’s “Collecting the Art of Asia,” such as this rattan Buddha sculpture by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich. If you're in the area, I recommend a visit to see this exhibit, up through May 26, 2013.

1 comment:

Sharri said...

Oh, darn! And I live on the West coast. Thanks for letting me see this much of it. Wonderful blog entry.