The main pleasure of any extensive ukiyo-e (woodblock print) exhibition, like the “Floating World” show now on at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, is the evocation of the unique civilization that underlies this particular slab of global modernity.
Among the sleek office buildings of the surrounding Marunouchi district and the retro-modernity of the museum building itself, which replicates a Western-style office building from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), this collection of woodblock prints sounds a note that still resonates with a deeper and more essential Japan.
The show presents almost 600 separate works, sourced from the collection of Fumio Saito and the Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum, of which Saito is the director. These are presented in three separate installments, with the first batch on display until July 15, so, yes, if you want to see the entire show you will have to make three trips.
This first part of the show focuses on what the curators call the “Golden Age” of ukiyo-e, by which they mean its early development and flowering into a fully formed art. You can trace this from the late-17th-century, black-and-white prints by Hishikawa Morunobu, considered by some to be the first pioneer of ukiyo-e, through Suzuki Harunobu’s renowned “Furyu Yatsushi: Nana Komachi” series (c. 1764), to early 19th-century works.
Throughout the exhibition, we constantly get glimpses of scenes and vignettes that we can connect to our modern experience of Japan. The clearest example of this is in a work near the end of the show: “Fireworks at Ryogoku” (c.1817) by Utagawa Toyokuni. The six separate printed sheets of this hexatych fit together to create a powerful composition that conveys one of the highlights of summer still popular today, namely viewing fireworks from the river.
Of course, it is easy enough to connect a modern event in which Tokyoites typically don yukata (summer kimono) and wave fans with a scene in a ukiyo-e print, but there is also a more essential resonance in the work. While most hexatych’s set their six panels side-by-side, Toyokuni’s work is made up of two rows of three prints. This allows for a much more effective image. Not only can we see the fireworks and the crowd enjoying this site on the bridge, but we can also get a close look at the teeming boats below. This reveals the well-ordered density of life that is still very much a feature of modern Tokyo.
Other aspects of the prints — from a certain poker-faced nonchalance that is common to many of the subjects to hints of gentle irony about gender — will also resonate with contemporary Japan. But, alas, this is not the focus of the show. Instead, the inclusion of a number of 19th-century French print works tells us that the main curatorial narrative is the famous one of Japan influencing the world.
“Ukiyo-e had, of course, a significant influence on Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, and other major figures in the nineteenth-century world of art in Europe,” Saito writes in the exhibition catalog.
Because of its appeal to Japanese audiences keen to see their culture as internationally significant, this thesis is often overstated in exhibitions of this sort. However, the viewpoint also serves to make these often quaint-seeming works more relevant to foreign audiences. This exhibition follows on from a similar one sourced from the same museum, held last year at the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi in southern France.
There is of course something in this thesis, and this show makes perhaps one of the most artistically eloquent cases for it, helped in large part by the museum building itself, which perfectly evokes the 19th-century milieu of artists like Lautrec.
The somewhat voyeuristic quality of ukiyo-e — check out the peeping tom in Torii Kiyonaga’s “Woman’s Bath” (1787) — is also apparent in Lautrec’s lithograph “Elles: Woman Combing her Hair” (1896); while the expressional intensity of the kabuki actors throwing a mie pose in some of the works is echoed by the Paris-based Swiss artist Eugene Grasset’s melodramatic “Vitriol Thrower” (1894), a clear stab at “poison pen” theater critics.
One of the most interesting pairings of ukiyo-e and French art is Katsukawa Shunsho’s depiction of the warrior “Miura no Osuke” (c. 1770) and Lautrec’s lithograph of “Jane Avril” (1899) in a sinuous pose. The head of the venerable warrior engaged in a struggle with another samurai is tilted away from his body at an angle and twist that perfectly echoes that of the French actress.
Although such artistic correspondences are entertaining and visually convincing to the general public, to the skeptic or more sophisticated viewer they are simply too contrived to convince that the earlier-dated Japanese works had the impact implied. This is very much a case of cherry-picking the evidence, but, then, this delightful exhibition is something of a bowl of cherries anyway.
The first part of “Floating World” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum runs till July 15; open. 10a.m.- 8 p.m. (Tue. Wed. Sun. till 6 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.mimt.jp/ukiyoe