The Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg is showing its collection of Japanese prints for the first time on these shores as part of diplomatic celebrations around the 150th anniversary of Japan-German relations. It is a catholic exhibition that showcases ukiyo-e in its wide array of manifestations, and is ultimately a chronological history of the genre from the late 17th to the late 19th century. Coming from a European collection, it also suggests reasons why Europe became besotted with Japanese woodblock prints in the 19th century while ignoring many other of Japan’s cultural productions.

The exhibition gets under way with 19 prints by the pioneering Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-94). These prints, in black and white, illustrate the narrative of “Drunkard Boy” (c. 1680), a Japanese mythological story of vanquishing demons. Torii Kiyomitsu’s (1735-85) “The Spring Horse Dance Performed in a Parlour” (between 1751-64) is a benizuri-e, or three-color print, and shows the development of print-making away from monochromaticity, though it was not until 1765 that the Torii School fell into decline as technological advancements in polychromatic printing brought about nishiki-e (brocade pictures), for which Suzuki Harunobu (1725-70) was pre-eminent.

Haranobu’s work spans around 10 years, between 1760-70. His exceedingly popular designs from 1765 focused on the manners and customs of daily Edo (present-day Tokyo) life and ushered in a print-making era that addressed townsfolk, Edo fashions and trends — a contrast to the ukiyo-e that had centered on narrative extracts and depictions of courtesans and actors.

The increased focus on the common people initiated greater realism in ukiyo-e, and this spurred the use of European perspectival and modeling conventions, which have been posited as an inheritance from Western paintings used for peepshow devices that were part of Edo entertainment. Such perspective compositions are seen in the interior architectural settings of Okumura Masanobu’s works from around 1745, though other East Asian spatial distinctions are still visible in the depiction of internal wall paintings. A similar conception is evident in Hokusai’s “Perspective Picture: Ushiwakamaru and Joruri-hime” (c.1781-84), in which the internal architecture diminishes toward the vanishing point of a one-point perspective while exterior scenes of the Japanese gardens are treated hierarchically.

Greater realism led to increased attention to the depiction of landscapes, which eventually became an independent genre in the Tempo Era (1830-44) marked by Katsushika Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (1831) and the 1833 series by Utagawa Hiroshige, “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido.” These two series were bolstered by travel interests, but initially spurred by literature.

Hiroshige sought a “true reflection” of scenery, and although he sketched landscapes he saw, his realism was often borrowed or mediated by earlier realistic impressions. From the 1830s, the pigment Berlin Blue was imported from Europe, and its color came to characterize ukiyo-e, along with Western perspectival and shading. The general adoption of the Western pigment began with Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” and it created a stylistic boom along with a shift from the vertical portrait formats of actor and beauty prints to the horizontal landscape format — again, arguably a Western inheritance.

Enthusiasts who say that ukiyo-e was formative in the development of European modernism overlook two points: First, elements of woodblock printing were taken up piecemeal and were often of minor significance to artists’ oeuvres in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Second, by the time the West encountered ukiyo-e in the late 19th century, the genre had already adopted a wealth of Western art precedents, its visual vocabulary resonating in ways that Japanese literati painting, for example, could not.

The exhibition highlight is the privately published Surimono prints (a genre of woodblock printing that combined poetry and visual elements). The first poem in Totoya Hokkei’s (1780-1850) “Dried Bonito Shavings and Wasabi” (c.1818-24) puns on the term “kakizome,” which means “first shavings of dried bonito” or can be a reference to the traditional first calligraphy of the year. It stands as a cryptic visual-verbal interplay, complicated by a second poem that adds seasonal references related to Japanese warblers and cuckoos. That such complex pieces in this exhibition are so outstanding serves as an ongoing corrective to the often heavy visual emphasis placed upon the West’s reception of ukiyo-e.

“Ukiyo-e Collection from the MKG Hamburg: 150th Anniversary of Japan-German Treaty” at Jotenkaku Museum runs till July 18 and from July 23 till Sept. 11; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The museum is at Shokoku-ji Temple, Imadegawa-dori, Karasuma Higashi-iru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto. For more information, visit www.shokoku-ji.or.jp/jotenkaku/index.html (Japanese only).

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