The idea for the smart, complex and challenging exhibition “From Ukiyo-e to Photography” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum started from the discovery of two images. One is a photograph of the Meiji-Era (1867-1912) Minister of Home Affairs Toshimichi Okubo, taken in Paris in 1878. The second is a color ukiyo-e print of Okubo, made in 1878 by the woodblock artist Kiyochika Kobayashi, which is clearly based on the earlier photographic portrait.
From this relatively straightforward use of a photograph as source material, a year of research and preparation has gone into organizing a remarkably varied presentation of creative innovation and genre-bending. There are photo-realistic woodblock prints and paintings and, conversely, photographs that have been colored to look like handmade art. You can also see ukiyo-e of Japanese beauties holding photographs, and rather eerie souvenir portraits that feature the head of a Caucasian client, copied from a photograph and grafted onto a pre-painted kimono with Mount Fuji in the background. Welcome to “Ye Olde Photo Shoppe,” version 1880.
Of course these visual mash-ups are highly symbolic: The imported technology of industrialized Europe and the U.S., with its scientific gaze has, literally, been superimposed on, or inserted into, the pre-modern world of Japan and its aesthetic traditions. A satirical 1882 ukiyo-e print by Yoshifuji Utagawa, “Enlightenment and the Destruction of the Old Ways Compared,” features in the exhibition as an indication of the times. Various anthropomorphized objects can be seen squaring off with each other; a rickshaw beats a palanquin with a stick and a kerosene lamp battles an old-fashioned ceramic oil lamp. In the corner, ukiyo-e can be seen fighting off photography. The insight of this exhibition, however, is that it reveals the liaison and continuity between the two.
It is noted, for example, that many of the locations in early Japanese landscape photography are derived from the tradition of meisho, or famous places mentioned in classical literature and subsequently used in ukiyo-e. Hand-tinting these landscape photographs, which were mostly destined for the foreign tourist market, became an important source of income for woodblock print artisans. The traditional genres of bijin-ga, pictures of beautiful people, and the patriarch portrait became two of the mainstays of the domestic photography business in 19th-century Japan.
It should be no surprise that images created in Japan for Japanese consumers have a less sensational and more personalized view of their subjects in comparison to photographs for export, whose purpose was to portray generalized, and exoticized, social “types,” rather than individuals. In terms of landscape images, the workaday monotone documentation of buildings and civil engineering commissioned by Japanese ministries compare interestingly with melodramatic fairy-tale photos made for foreign tourists, especially when they are of the same place. Viewed today, after typologies have become a major feature of contemporary art photography, the fading sepia government images of castles, shrines, temples and tombs have an austere and surreal beauty.
To be clear, there is plenty of melodrama for native consumption, too. One of the strengths of this exhibition is that it has such a diverse range of material, and it should give Japanophiles, academics, artists and photographers plenty to muse over for some time. The overall design of the exhibition may not be on par with newer venues in Roppongi and Tokyo Midtown, but the oddities and aesthetic dead-ends that failed to make it out of the early 20th century are a great mix of intriguing surprises.
One of the most interesting is the “oil photography” of Matsusaburo Yokoyama. A jealously-guarded process, revealed to only one other person, oil photography is probably now lost to history after Yokoyama’s protege, Ryoichi Azukizawa, died without passing his master’s secrets on to anyone else.
The technique was developed as a relatively quick way of creating richly-saturated, detailed lens-based images, and when used for formal portraits, it could be described, in modern terms, as resulting in hybrid images that fall into the “uncanny valley” — that crucial gap between lifelike and 100 percent realistic, where low-budget CGI characters and robot receptionists live. However, when used for landscapes or documentation of art objects, the results are extraordinary in the way that Yokoyama more than likely intended; that is, they combine the exactness of photographic reproduction with the deep lustre of oil painting. They are in effect hyperreal images, created long before the term was coined by post-modern philosophers.
The full title of the exhibition suggests that the transition from ukiyo-e to photography was a turning point in visual perception in Japan, and is somewhat reminiscent of the literary critic Kojin Karatani’s suggestion in the 1990s that the modern self was conjured into being through the objective perception of landscape. Was this new mechanical gaze also the cause of a cultural awakening? In the age of the smartphone and the overuse of photo filters, this show tells us that if it was, we may have since nodded off a bit.
“From Ukiyo-e to Photography: Cultural Awakening in Japan’s Visual Field” at the Edo Tokyo Museum runs until Dec. 6; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Sat. until 7:30 p.m.). ¥1,350. Closed Mon. www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp