Trekking through a snowstorm may not seem an auspicious way to start a gallery tour, but in the case of Kiyochika: Master of the Night, the outdoor setting feels almost apropos. On this last snowy day of the season, the Mall is awash in muted shades of gray as I enter the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler gallery. On tap is a press preview and tour featuring 42 prints by Kobayashi Kiyochika who Dr. James Ulak, curator of the exhibition, describes as, “the last great ukiyo-e artist and the first Japanese modernist.” This exhibition, culled from the permanent collection of the Sackler, offers a fascinating bridge between European expressions of modernism — in life as well as art — and traditional Japanese artistic practices. As such it provides those of us not well-versed in the traditional arts of Asia (myself included) a unique touchpoint for greater understanding of Japanese artistry.
Those hazy, grey tones of the sky outside, and the feelings of introspection they engender, are equally matched by the color palette Kiyochika turns to again and again throughout this series of woodblock prints, produced between 1874 and 1881. Where traditional ukiyo-e prints often emphasize lively colors and occasionally discordant perspectives, Kiyochika’s series is notable for its human-scaled panoramas bathed in mysterious twilight. This emphasis on twilight occurs for both aesthetic and historical reasons.
A quick history lesson is in order. Kiyochika grew up in Edo (now Tokyo) as the traditional political structure dominated for centuries by shoguns was unraveling. In 1868, a new “reformist” government seized control, and Kiyochika followed his deposed shogun to live in the countryside. When he returned to the new capital six years later, he found a city scrambling pell-mell to assert its modernity. In his remarks prior to our tour, Dr. Ulak provided a 21st century context for the audience. Imagine a coup in Washington, DC, and a concomitant exodus of the political class. The value of Georgetown real estate plummets whilst buildings downtown are repurposed in an upheaval of the physical landscape by Silicon-Valley transplants. The equivalent scenario occurred in Tokyo as new city planners, both aware of European modernization efforts (such as Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris) and the encroachment of Western powers in nearby Asian countries, sought to transform the capital with the latest modern amenities, including one of the newest inventions: the gas-lamp.
Gas lighting changed the way the citizenry viewed their city. Small kerosene lamps became a commonplace in the home, while in 1874 public, outdoor lighting began to appear in the area surrounding the new parliament. Mastering the darkness gave rise to a nocturnal city unchained from the dictates of the sun. Simultaneously, the advent of steam-powered trains and ships gave the public mastery over geography. New construction methods relying on brick instead of traditional building materials further transformed the visual landscape. Kiyochika likely returned to this fantastical place with equal parts awe and trepidation. The artist had no formal art training, and his approach to cityscapes in many ways mimicked the traditional forms championed by (the curator notes) Utagawa Hiroshige, who produced a well-known series of Edo in the 1850s. Yet in just two short decades, the city’s transformation in both geography and attitude was so profound that capturing this sense of modernity dictated an entirely new aesthetic.
That aesthetic is one which focuses on the light, both natural and man-made, creating tonal variations that invoke both a sense of awe and air of mystery. In View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon (1879), the artist not only captures a range of hues in the evening twilight, but also the fire from the engine’s chimney and lighting within the train cars, where we can discern the outlines of anonymous passengers. An even more striking example of his handiwork can be seen in Night at Nihonbashi. Night falls heavily upon the city, yet residents promenade down the street with overhead lamps ablaze. Those streetlamps serve as focal points, both in their novelty and for the way their light casts shadows, wrapping the inhabitants in cloaks of anonymity.
This sense of anonymity also appears as a key theme within the artist’s work. Rather than exalt the newly modern citizenry, Kiyochika masks their identities, casting them as an “everyman” in his tableaus. In many cases, we the observer are placed in a similar status, encouraged to watch from the sidelines. Take for instance Year-end Market at Sensoji Temple, which showcases a night market within a public square. At the time an evening market, lit by streetlamps and kerosene lanterns, would have been a novelty. The foreground of the image is a sea of anonymous patrons, looking towards the market as if spectators at the play. The framing of the image also positions us, the viewers, as audience members to this spectacle of light and culture, literally “watching the watchers”. The mood is celebratory, but also uneasy, as we watch the onlookers coming to terms with this fascinating new technology.
While Kiyochika’s most nuanced works portray Tokyo’s new nightlife, he did not shy away daylight. In some instances, utilizing the sun’s output allows for more subtle commentary on the changing city, especially when it comes to the city’s architecture. As one section of the exhibition notes, brick buildings made their debut in Tokyo at this time, representing a major change to both century’s old construction techniques and the spatial layout of homes and public buildings. While these changes were not always welcome, they were a harbinger of “improvements” yet to come. In Suspension Bridge on Castle Grounds (1879) Kiyochika documents this new building technique, now elevated to tourist attraction. This image is also notable for its capturing of Westerners. Western modes of dress, most notably hats with creased crowns imported from Europe, are a recurring motif (the exhibition groups several of them into a sub-series titled The Man in the Hat).
That Kiyochika planned to make 100 images (the number 100 would have been considered complete) is assumed by scholars but ultimately unknowable. A major fire in 1881 cut his project short at 93 images, and future works by the artist reverted to more traditional modes of expression (the exhibition underscores this change with a later work from 1884 paired next to an 1856 print from Hiroshige, where the resemblance in structure is uncanny). Still for a short time, Kiyochika captured through traditional Japanese woodcut techniques the same luminous qualities in light that his European contemporaries sought to attain with oil on canvas, creating artistic linkages that remain with us today.
Kiyochika: Master of the Night is on view through July 27th, 2014 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler gallery. For more information, visit their website at http://asia.si.edu/
Editor’s Note: While the Smithsonian is outside our normal coverage area, we believe this particular exhibition might resonate with a wide range of readers.
Banner Image: Paper Money Bureau at Tokiwabashi (partial detail), Kobayashi Kiyochika, Meji Era, 1880; Woodblock print: ink and color on Paper; Robert O. Muller Collection; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Photo by Eric Hope for East City Art.