The current exhibition at the ICN gallery in London, ukiyo-e pop, showcases classic ukiyo-e (浮世絵 / Japanese woodblock prints) and modern art influenced by these traditional prints, which falls under the umbrella of contemporary ‘Japonism‘. This exhibition is part two of a three-part series. Part 1 “What is Ukiyo-e?” provided a good introduction to ukiyo-e, and this second part shows how much these cheap, popular prints of the Edo and Meiji periods have influenced not only Japanese but also Western art today. Considering these prints were not even thought of as ‘art’ when they were originally made, it’s pretty incredible how highly they are thought of now.
I have to admit, I’ve got quite interested in Japanese art over the last year, and have hungrily devoured the information presented to me in these exhibitions. I’ve also attended all three of the gallery talks that were held at the ICN gallery recently, and feel like I’m studying something new (wish I had discovered Japanese art when I was at college!). Two of the gallery talks were by Dr Monika Hinkel (SOAS/V&A) and one was by Joe Keating (Designer) & Hisami Omori (Curator). Monika Hinkel spoke about “Hokusai & Hiroshige: Masters of Ukiyo-e Landscape prints” in her first talk and “Japanese Landscape prints: Then & Now” in her second talk, while Joe Keating (half of the wonderful Atsuko & Joe) spoke about “Ukiyo-e from the design point of view”. All of the talks were fascinating, and I couldn’t possibly recount everything here, but I’ll try to give you a flavour of the kind of things I learnt about…
One thing that really interested me, which I can’t believe I didn’t know before, is that famous Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese art. One example of this is Hiroshige’s “Plum Garden at Kameido” (from the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”) which influenced van Gogh’s “Flowering Plum Tree”.
But it didn’t stop there – even now artists are being influenced by traditional ukiyo-e. Some of the modern work on display at the ICN gallery is obviously inspired by ukiyo-e (and some even uses the same techniques, replicated by the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints in Tokyo), but other work is less obviously connected. The current exhibition is split over two floors. On the ground floor you can see landscape prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, recreated by the Adachi Institute, and on the basement floor you can see examples of contemporary Japonism – modern Japanese digital landscape prints by illustration artists. These modern illustrations bear less resemblance to ukiyo-e and more to manga, in my opinion, but then it is often said that manga came from ukiyo-e.
In the ICN cafe there are examples of more obviously ukiyo-e influenced art, in the form of the “Ukiyo-e Heroes” series by Jed Henry:
“Ukiyo-e Heroes” is Jed Henry and David Bull’s intriguing project which aims to put Japanese video game characters back into ukiyo-e. As Jed points out in this interesting video, when video game designers first set out to design characters and scenes, it was clear that they looked to their artist heritage for inspiration – i.e. ukiyo-e. Working as a team (just as the masters used to), Jed makes the designs and David, one of a handful of people familiar with woodblock printing techniques, prints them.
I think these pieces are absolutely brilliant, and a lot of fun. At first, when you look at them, you think they are traditional ukiyo-e, and then you suddenly realise you’re looking at Donkey Kong or another classic game character.
Also, by the stairs in the gallery, there is one more modern piece – the wonderful “New Edo Landmark Nihonbashi of Tokaido” by Akira Yamaguchi (1969 ~), which I just couldn’t stop staring at.
This piece depicts Nihonbashi, as featured in many classic ukiyo-e prints, but with the modern expressway over top as in real life, and Hiroshige’s bridge above that. This merging of old and new is what contemporary Japan is all about, and I find this piece fascinating. This print is brand new, and was only just printed by the Adachi Institute and sent over for this exhibition.
There is so much more I could say about ukiyo-e and contemporary Japonism, but I think I will save it for another day, when I’ve had time to do more research. This is certainly a topic I will be coming back to, as there are so many contemporary artists whose work I want to explore in more detail. If you have any recommendations (or perhaps you’re an artist and I should be featuring your work!), do feel free to leave a comment below!