Monday, April 7, 2014

"Kiyochika: Master of the Night" at the Freer/Sackler in DC

The Sumida River at Night
I had the great pleasure to see this exhibition in DC this past weekend and got an up close and personal look at a significant body of work by Kobayashi Kiyochika. Definitely worth the three and a half hour drive from Philadelphia.

It makes such a difference to see these works in person. Prints tends to be smaller than paintings (these were mostly horizontal, about 15 inches across), which emphasizes a more intimate experience similar to reading a picture book. To look at them on a wall, each framed, and one after another is a kind of peering through windows; quietly spying on a foreign land from a bygone era.

A Steam Locomotive in Hazy Moonlight
Kiyochika came of age during the start of the Modern Era in Japan, and his work is reflective of the dramatically transitional Meiji Period in that nation's history. The old and the new Japan are combined seamlessly in most of the images. For example, in The Sumida River at Night, a woman in a kimono is depicted beside a man wearing a Western style hat. (The "man in the hat" was such a prominent reoccurring image that the museum's curators made special note of it in writing.)

As Kiyochika worked in the traditional ukiyo-e style of woodblock printmaking, it was slightly jarring to see imagery of trains and clock towers depicted in that style. I found myself deeply pondering how both threatening and exhilarating it must have felt for the people who lived through such times to see so much rapid change shaped by foreign influences.

Another reoccurring image in Kiyochika's work is the crack in the sky. In these works, it often seems as if something ominous and disapproving is gathering overhead. There is a feeling of helplessness and being guided by mysterious and powerful forces.

The people in Kiyochika's images seem ghostly and anonymous. They are frequently shown in dark silhouette, and often floating, such as when they cast no shadow on the ground. Since the layers of color are often translucent, figures whose forms cross a highly contrasting horizon line are divided by it. It is as if they are dissipating in the rain or hazy evening light. Things are changing, but this is still the floating world.

Asakusa Bridge and the Great Fire at Ryogoku
I felt particularly moved by the images depicting the Great Fire at Ryogoku and its aftermath. During the fire, the structures of the earth and sky merge into one, breathtaking, seething mass of hot destruction. In one print, the typically quietly floating people spring to life and run, though still translucent, ghostly, and at the mercy of greater forces. Afterward, silent, flat outlines of nondescript humanity drifted across the leveled, ragged landscape.

My only disappointment was that the museum produced no catalog for sale. After seeing all the work, I'd resolved to buy one even if it was pricey. Alas, I walked out empty handed.

You can see some shots of the interior view of the exhibition and read another good review of the exhibition by Farrah Skeiky here. The work is up through July 27th, so if you'll be in or near DC before then, check it out. Admission is free!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Martha! I love the Great Fire print you've shown here. I hope to get a chance to see the show when I'm in the DC area in July.