The curators at Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) have decided that Japan, a country well-known for its own print art, should know more about the print art of Europe. In this endeavor, they have chosen the work of Israhel van Meckenem (c. 1445-1503), a Germanic print artist from the Lower Rhine area, active in the latter half of the 15th century.

Few will have heard of him. He lacks the name recognition of artists such as Albrecht Durer, a German painter more well-known for his print work. So, why would the museum decide to focus on a rather obscure name for “Sacred and Secular: Israhel van Meckenem & Early German Engraving”?

There are a number of reasons. First, Van Meckenem was an engraver rather than a woodblock artist. Works by engravers are generally of higher quality and have greater artistic merit. Second, Van Meckenem was incredibly prolific and many of his works have survived. In fact, around one fifth of the print works to survive from the period of time that he was working in are by him. Third, although most of the works in the exhibition are from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung (National Graphic Arts Collection) in Munich, the NMWA also has a collection of Van Meckenem’s works.

Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were often sold as souvenirs to visitors to Tokyo and also, in the case of bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), in its pleasure quarters. Late medieval European print art, by contrast, had a more religious purpose. The text at the foot of Van Meckenem’s “The Mass of St. Gregory” (undated), states that those who pray in front of a holy image are spared 2,000 years atoning for their sins in purgatory.

While the prints could serve a direct religious purpose, it is thought that they were also used by artists as models for religious paintings to decorate churches. There was a strong culture of copying that is greatly at odds with the idea of uniqueness and authenticity that later came to define art. In some respects, early print art was a primitive form of today’s internet viral culture, where you could say there is no shame about “stealing memes.” Print artists picked up particularly popular images, which were then reproduced by many other print makers.

This exhibition focuses on the division between religious and secular art, which is a good one to make, as the secular tended to be more idiosyncratic than the religious artworks, and thus a better indicator of the artist’s true style and personality. Prints like “Battle for the Trousers” (undated), for example, reveal Van Meckenem to be a wry commenter on the ups and downs of married life, even though his self portrait with his wife reveals a more harmonious picture.

“Sacred and Secular: Israhel van Meckenem & Early German Engraving” at the National Museum of Western Art runs until Sept. 19; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. until 8:30 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. except Aug. 15 and 19. www.nmwa.go.jp/jp/index.html

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