• SHARE

Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints, by Bruce A. Coats, with essays by Allen Hockley, Kyoko Kurita and Joshua S. Mostow. Leiden: Hotei/Brill Publishing, 2006, 208 pp., 280 color illustrations, $99 (cloth)

This is the first monograph in English on the Meiji Era print-maker Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912), an artist about whom little has been previously written. He is not listed, for example, in the most general English-language source, the nine-volume “Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan.” But that’s a 1983 publication and Chikanobu’s rise to fame and (according to the press release for this volume) his position as “one of the most collected artists among collectors of Japanese prints” is relatively recent.

In earlier publications, late Tokugawa and early Meiji print-makers used to be listed among “the decadents” and this included artists now as prominent as Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Keisai Eisen — both of whom were among Chikanobu’s teachers. In criticisms still earlier, the worth of even Ando Hiroshige was being questioned, and it will be remembered that Katsushika Hokusai prints were in the mid-19th-century apparently being used as packaging material for porcelain being sent to France. This at least is the anecdote accounting for later French enthusiasm for Japanese prints.

The enthusiasm continues, and perhaps one of the reasons for Chikanobu’s becoming most collected is that there is still something to collect. Hokusai prints are rare and very expensive, but the work of the Meiji print-makers was, until recently, available and relatively cheap.

I remember going around with Lincoln Kirstein, visiting the shops in Kanda and Hongo, while he bought what has become the Meiji print-collection in the New York Metropolitan Museum. It was 100 yen for this one, 200 yen for that.

At the same time earlier print-makers and their work have been much studied. So much so that there is little that recent scholars can add to what is known or has been ventured about Kitagawa Utamaro and Hokusai. Much more rewarding are those later artists who have been neglected or have been called decadent — here the field is relatively uncluttered and Chikanobu finds his first major monograph.

This is not to imply that Chikanobu’s work is of lesser skill or interest — merely that until now he has been neglected. The present monograph then may be seen as a long-due reassessment of the artist and his career. This is what Bruce Coats has accomplished.

Professor of art history at Claremont (California) Scripps College — the institution that provided the majority of the Chikanobu prints included here — Coats sees his artist as illustrating the concerns of his day.

This he avers in the title of his work, “Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints,” and in the text itself he sums up this interpretation of Chikanobu: He “at first advocated the process of modernization . . . but then came to resist Westernization by focusing on traditional values . . . to counter the new influences from outside Japan.”

In a parabola analogous to those of such literary artists as Kafu Nagai and Junichiro Tanizaki, Chikanobu initially depicted the mysteries of the sewing machine and the latest French fashions using the lush vocabulary of colors (deep red, bright green) that made his prints seem so modern. Later, however, he returned to the stylistic virtues of the late Tokugawa Period. He revived older themes, illustrated shogunal life, and rarefied his palette into something like an older style.

In doing this he echoed the development of the Meiji state itself, which turned from enthusiasm for the West, to emulation of the modern, to a more considered evaluation of the past. In this way Chikanobu spoke for his epoch and it is this consideration that informs all the texts in this volume.

Certainly few later print artists have been given a monograph of such splendor as this one. Published in cooperation with Scripps College, this elaborate and beautiful monograph accompanies a traveling exhibition that will be on view in the United States and in Japan. It contains reproductions of every print written about and much more — the full 50 prints of both the “Snow, Moon, Flowers” and the “Eastern Brocades” series, for example, as well as full sets of the “Chiyoda Inner and Outer Palace Scenes” series.

With this exemplary presentation Chikanobu takes his place in the pantheon, and his prices will rise accordingly.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW