The great print works of ukiyo-e, by the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro, became fine art almost by accident. Originally mass produced for the popular market, their status was roughly equivalent to that of illustrated calendars and posters of pop stars today. But, ironically, the fact that they weren’t regarded as particularly valuable by the Japanese led them to be considered fine art abroad, as they were either discarded — increasing their rarity value — or exported to lands where their novelty and aesthetic merits gained them a keen following.

But the very ease with which print art can be reproduced meant that subsequent ukiyo-e always faced the danger of being cheapened by overproduction, which is exactly what had happened by the end of the 19th century.

The story of Japanese print art in the 20th century centers on its attempt to regain something of that former high-art status. “Beautiful Shin-hanga — Revitalization of Ukiyo-e,” an exhibition at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, looks at an important part of this interesting tale.

A key figure in the saga is Shozaburo Watanabe, the Tokyo publisher who coined the phrase shin hanga (new prints) in 1915 to distinguish the movement from the devalued mass-market ukiyo-e. Watanabe was an astute businessman who aimed to maintain high-value demand for his products by appealing to Western tastes while also maintaining quality and relative rarity.

The first stage in his entrepreneurial scheme was to establish a stylistic difference. Although he had enjoyed success publishing the works of Shotei Takahashi, this artist’s work was stylistically too similar to preceding ukiyo-e artists. Instead Watanabe turned to a stranded Austrian painter, Fritz Capelari, trapped in Japan by the outbreak of World War I.

After seeing Capelari’s watercolors in an exhibition at a department store, Watanabe contacted the artist and suggested a collaboration. As Capelari’s father had been a decorative wood carver, he was fascinated with the carving and printing aspects of the project and readily agreed, producing works like “Pine Trees by the Moat” (1915) that stylized traditional ukiyo-e subject matter in a distinctly modern way, helping to set shin hanga apart.

The foreign contribution to the movement seems to have been considerable. The exhibition also includes excellent examples by Paul Jacoulet, Elizabeth Keith, Bertha Lum, and Charles W. Bartlett. But foreigners were not always an easy fit in the predominantly Japanese world of hanga. For example, the art critic Usui Kojima criticized Bartlett’s choice of Indian subject matter in an open letter to the art magazine “Bijutsu Gaho” in 1916.

Even Capelari, who was praised in the same letter by Kojima, seems to have been on a different track. This is most clearly demonstrated by his bijnga (pictures of beautiful women). In both “Woman with a dog” (1915) and “Woman before a Mirror” (1915), the beauties have the type of round face that many Westerners associate with east Asians, instead of the more artistically conventional, stylized long, elegant face favored by most Japanese artists.

Also, with the main market being overseas, it was important to maintain the Japanese character of the art.

The exhibition includes a total of 250 items, but is centered on 30 prints from the Robert Muller collection of the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler gallery. Starting in 1931, Muller, an American dealer and collector, amassed the world’s foremost collection of shin hanga before his death in 2003. Like most Western collectors, he was clearly in favor of greater “authenticity,” preferring Japanese to foreign hanga artists, although the exhibition does include one Capelari collected by Muller.

While foreign artists helped to set shin hanga apart, Watanabe was astute enough to realize that the future lay in finding Japanese artists who could create the kind of “authenticity” collectors required but at the same time add something of the new modern spirit. This meant staying thematically close to the ukiyo-e tradition, with images of beautiful ladies, scenery, temples, actors, and so on, while introducing modern stylistic devices, like naturalistic light, color gradations, three- dimensionality, and a conscious use of texture.

Hasui Kawase’s “Kiyosu Bridge” (1931) and “The Zojoji Temple in Snow” (1953) show most of these stylistic features in play. The latter work is also used in the exhibition to illustrate the production process and to emphasize the importance of quality, with several of the actual woodblocks on display, as well as a video showing how the image was carefully built up using 42 impressions overlaid on the same piece of paper.

You can also see prints by Shunsen Natori and Koka Yamamura, showing the leading actors of the day, such as the latter’s “The Actor Onoe Matsusuke IV as Komori Yasu in the Play Yowa Nasake Ukina” (1917).

The dominant note in the exhibition, however, is sounded by the bijinga of Shinsui Ito, Goyo Hashiguchi, and others, showing that foreign perceptions of Japanese beauty are irretrievably intertwined with the geisha and Madame Butterfly myths, to which temples, flowers, seascapes, actors, and even Mount Fuji are mere backdrops.

“Beautiful Shin-hanga — Revitalization of Ukiyo-e” runs till Nov. 8 at The Edo-Tokyo Museum; admission ¥1,300; open 9:30 a.m.-5:20 p.m. (7:30 on Sat.); closed Mon. For more information visit www.edo-tokyo- museum.or.jp/english/special/now/index.html

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