Spring 2007


West Looks East
By Christine H. O’Toole

The stylized beauty. The posterized colors. Those fabulous, glamorous, celebritized faces.

If you don’t see it on first glance, you will on the second: The 235 prints in Modern Japanese Prints: 1868–1989 reveal the Asian backstory of contemporary American printmakers like Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, and Alex Katz.  

Modern Japanese masters subtly reinterpreted their national icons—a cross-eyed kabuki star, a famous courtesan, and Mt. Fuji—in a method similar to the way Warhol subverted images of Jackie Onassis, Elvis Presley, and a Holstein cow. While the artists’ names may not be familiar to the American public, their images are, illuminating the ongoing cross-pollination of Japanese and Western art.  

American fascination with Asia began when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853. Nineteenth-century Impressionists embraced Japanese calligraphy, scrolls, and stylized depictions of courtesans, kabuki actors, and landscapes known as ukiyo-e. Today’s global media culture broadcasts Japan’s continuing impact, notably in anime film (Japanese animation) and manga comic art, both of which reflect the classical styles.

Modern Japanese Prints, on view at Carnegie Museum of Art through April 15, traces how Japanese printmaking techniques and imagery evolved in two major 20th-century schools. A fact unknown to many, Pittsburgh is an important center for such print collecting. All prints in the exhibition are locally owned, and not all by the museum: included are prints from four private collectors in addition to those gleaned from a 2,600-piece collection—praised as one of the finest in the United States—donated to Carnegie Museum of Art in 1989 by local connoisseur James Bliss Austin.

“Between the two schools, there’s not a clear-cut distinction in the content of the prints. The line is drawn technically,” says
Lila Penchansky, a founder of the Pittsburgh Japanese Prints Collectors Club, who along with Pittsburghers Esther Barazzone, Nicholas Reise, Daniel Russell, and an anonymous collector, lent works from their personal collections for Modern Japanese Prints.

“Most of the woodblock prints in this exhibition have never been shown here before,” says Amanda Zehnder, Carnegie Museum of Art’s assistant curator of Fine Arts. “They’re beautiful, and sometimes intriguingly unusual. The number of techniques involved reveals the complexity of the woodblock medium.”


The dates that bookend the exhibition reflect significant historical forces in Japanese history. In 1868, the restoration of imperial rule began Japan’s Meiji period, and the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 closed a momentous chapter. In between, the powerful Tokugawa Shogun fell, and the national capital moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo (“eastern capital”). Contact with the West was suddenly officially encouraged. Clashes with China and Russia, the famous Kanto earthquake of 1923, two world wars, and U.S. occupation followed.

During this 121-year time span, the subject matter of traditional printmaking changed very little, but production of the work changed dramatically. Prints usually focused on the ukiyo (floating world) of the entertainment quarter: theater, courtesans, and geishas. Those depictions of famous actors and beauties had been popular since at least 1600, as had the serene landscapes called fukeiga, which showcased famous locales.  

“Actors in the kabuki theater were superstars!” says Sandy Kita, an art historian and senior scholar at Chatham College who  helped prepare Modern Japanese Prints for  public view. “They endorsed products, with exactly the same consumerism that we see today. As they became the subject of prints, their celebrity increased. Their images were everywhere. Think of one of our iconic images—the photo of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing. Today’s students recognize it immediately, without knowing which movie it came from. Like that image, the ukiyo celebrities were inescapable.”

Japanese icons soon entered U.S. culture, as well. In The Great Wave, a famous image by 18th-century printmaker Hokusai, a foaming white crest curls in front of Mt. Fuji. Today it also curls along the side of a building in Los Angeles, where the painting was recreated as a popular giant mural.  

But as the 20th-century dawned, two new artistic movements diverged radically in their approach to traditional subjects. One, shin-hanga, retained the time-honored business model of a publisher who commissioned images from artists and hired artisan carvers and printers to craft the prints. The other, sôsaku-hanga, declared the right of the individual artist to design, carve, color, and sell his own works.

Revolutionary Change

Although shin-hanga translates literally as “new prints,” the term is misleading. The movement founded in 1915 actually evoked ancient traditions.

As Japan fought World War I alongside its Allied partners, the country was becoming more westernized, and with its nostalgic references to the past, shin-hanga reacted against that dilution of national identity. Coined by noted publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô, the term denoted the traditional multi-tiered production process and representational images.  

Among the artists Shôzaburô commissioned, and whose work appears in this section of Modern Japanese Prints, was Itô Shinsui for bijan-ga (beautiful women); Ohara Koson for kachoga (birds and flowers); and Kawasei Hasui for fukeiga (traditional themes for landscapes).

By contrast, Zehnder explains, the sôsaku-hanga, creative prints movement prized abstract and experimental approaches. Predating shin-hanga by nearly a decade, the school began modestly with Yamamoto Kanae’s The Fisherman. The image was revolutionary not for its subject but for its production: Kanae carved and printed the work himself, based on his own drawing. That declaration of artistic independence sparked a revolution.

“Sôsaku-hanga looks more modern to us,” notes Zehnder.  “There are different motifs, different scales, different colors, and pure abstraction. There’s also a sense of critiquing themes. An image of an actor, instead of showing him in a famous role, would depict him without make-up, with a shadowy face.”

Zehnder has two images of bijan-ga pinned above her desk, each illustrating the divergence in styles. Winter, a shin-hanga beauty created by Kitano Tsunetomi in 1925, offers the delicate tints and demure expression of the classical geisha. It contrasts sharply with Coral (B), in which Saitô Kiyoski’s darker, more angular beauty expresses the abstract sôsaku-hanga style in 1958.

The calligraphy learned by every Japanese student—compulsory education in Japan dates to 1872—also paved the way for sôsaku-hanga experimentation. “Calligraphy is how you learn brush painting,” Sandy Kita explains. “You can’t overlap letters, and you get expert at placing strokes between strokes. That translates to the big black-and-white compositions of creative prints. You stop looking at them as images and begin to see them as abstracts. In their use of negative and positive space, they’re beautiful beyond belief.”

Among the most famous works of art in Modern Japanese Prints are the complete set of scrolls in a series by Munakata Shikô, titled the Ten Great Disciplines of Buddha (1939). Much larger than the standard oban size (roughly 10 by 12 inches), the prints from rough woodblock carvings are mounted on six-foot-long silk scrolls and won the first prize in its section of the Third Biennial International Art Exhibition in São Paolo in 1955 and the Grand Prix at the 1956 Venice Biennale. A complete set was acquired by Carnegie Museum of Art one year later through a gift from Charles Rosenbloom.

International recognition of modern Japanese prints came as the country emerged from U.S. post-war occupation; Americans stationed in Japan at that time were among their first collectors. Some Japanese publishers capitalized on a new market among those who wanted unusual souvenirs. “The founding American scholars in this topic have deep and complicated roots in the occupation years,” Zehnder notes. “It was a controversial era with lots of mixed feelings.”

U.S. Migration

By the time Pittsburgher James Austin visited Japan in 1959, western appreciation for the traditional shin-hanga work prints was well established. The research chemist for United States Steel Corporation gravitated to the newer, more affordable sôsaka-hanga style and later conscientiously expanded his choices to include neglected Buddhist prints of earlier centuries.

The erudite Austin was “the perfect audience for sôsaku-hanga,” says Zehnder, admiringly. Before his death, he had lent his collection to the Museum of Art for several exhibitions, including a major display in 1976. When he died in 1988, just months before Emperor Hirohito, his collection of 2,600 prints was permanently bequeathed to the museum.

In Japan’s broken economy, prints were affordable art. Kita estimates a $2 to $3 original purchase price for many items in the museum’s collection. In the early 1950s, a number of Japanese artists emigrated to the United States; some even began to take American images as their subjects. (One piece in the exhibition, Minaret in Summer, Washington, D.C., depicts a Georgetown mosque.)

At home, Japanese artists struggled to reconstruct their work. “Noted shin-hanga artist Kawase Hasui’s publisher’s shop was destroyed first in 1923, in Tokyo’s great fire, and again during World War II. All the original woodblocks were destroyed,” Zehnder recounts. “That’s why it’s extraordinary to have pre-1923 works, and we do.” Munakata preserved the woodblocks from Ten Great Disciples by burying them in his Tokyo yard. He returned years later to retrieve the masterworks.

“I love the hand work,” adds Sandy Kita. “It’s astonishing what you can do with wood and ink. There are simple lines done with a brush where each of the two edges is subtly different. It is incredible craftsmanship combined with something intellectually compelling, often layers upon layers.

“These artists ask, what’s really real? That’s certainly a Japanese concept, rooted in their belief in reincarnation: the next time around, I will see this differently.  But it also demonstrates that there is no absolute reality—and that’s a very modern thought.”

- - - - - -

Learn more about Japanese woodblock prints

A series of public programs for young students, teachers, and Asian art enthusiasts celebrate Japanese culture in conjunction with Modern Japanese Prints.

March 3: To celebrate Girls Day in Japan, girls and boys are invited to a special Saturday program in Carnegie Museum of Art’s galleries to enjoy original prints illustrating the Japanese children’s story The Tale of the Shining Princess, storytelling, and arts activities.  

March 10: Act 48 Workshop: Object-Based Lessons. This workshop explores the use of woodblock prints as artifacts of another culture in object-based lesson plans. Included is a lecture by Brenda Jordan of the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Center on the print process and how to look at original prints. The day includes tours of the Frick’s The Prints of Tsukioka Kôgyo exhibition and Carnegie Museum of Art’s Modern Japanese Prints: 1868–1989.

March 22: Carnegie Museum of Art and the Frick Art and Historical Center collaborate for a Lunch and Learn, offering teachers and the public a guided tour of Frick’s The Prints of Tsukioka Kôgyo exhibition, lunch at Carnegie Café, and a talk by Carnegie Museum of Art Assistant Curator of Fine Arts Amanada Zehnder, curator of Modern Japanese Prints: 1868–1989.  

Programs are co-sponsored by the Asian Studies Center, University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Also in this issue:

One Hot Topic  ·  Golden Years  ·  Off the Wall …and Into Packed Theaters  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Lareese Hall  ·  Artistic License: Bizarre Beasts  ·  First Person: Video Art, by Douglas Fogle  ·  About Town: Let's Explore  ·  Another Look: The Natural History Docent  ·  Science & Nature: In Search of the Best Visitor Experience  ·  Then & Now: Hillman Hall