Some PRESSING History

Offering a kind of thematic-and-color-saturated dance between the fabulist and representational art, Fields of Color: The Art of Japanese Printmaking is an impressive collection of traditional woodblock prints. Exhibited in the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens’ Millner Gallery, this 20-piece show is culled from the museum’s Dennis C. Hayes collection of more than 230 Japanese prints. Curated by Nelda Damiano, master artists including Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1838-1912) are featured, along with several other equally skilled printmakers.

The predominant prints in the exhibit are inspired by the movement known as ukiyo-e, “the floating world.” A thematic constant of the Edo period (1603-1868), celebrated Japan’s rulers, its economic growth and increasing national strength-a kind of mass celebration of the country’s arts and culture. Courtesans, nature and seascapes, noble samurais, and everyday life were glorified in these prints, all based on pleasure and the sensorial, rendered by master artists whose works met with an enthusiastic audience.

In the history of art, there is a commonly held view that during this era of Japanese visual art, a print could be purchased for the price of a bowl of noodles. So these printmakers were surely savvy to the populist take on, and demand for, their works. In fact, prints were held in such high regard by the people of Japan that they enjoyed a strong, ongoing presence in Japanese art from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Fields of Color attempts to encapsulate the history, the artists, the qualities and the impact of this era.

The piece Hodemi-no-Mikoto Riding a Sea Bream, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), (pictured) features the titular mythical hero riding rodeo-style atop a large fish, a determined expression on the protagonist’s face, brandishing a bamboo fishing cane above him like a sword as the ocean waves crash around him. Yoshitoshi is a master at compositional flair, as the perspective moves in a circular manner around the action in the center of the print, with colorful banners of text used as “rhythmic” stopping points that frame Hodemi-no-Mikoto while adding to the dynamism and action of the image. Similarly impressive are selections from Yoshitoshi’s 100 Views of the Moon series, with their noble heroes rendered in contemplative repose.

The piece Juxtaposed Pictures of Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety: Yang Xiang is notable for both its color and composition. In the lower half of the piece, a domestic courtesan is in conversation with a young boy as he glances up, petting a sleeping housecat. Above this, a terrified villager crashes through jungle growth as a monstrous tiger bares its fangs; arms outstretched, a second man screams at the jungle cat. While there is an obvious toggling between young/adult, quietness/terror, even cat/tiger, artist Toyahara Chikanobu (1838-1912) is never heavy-handed with his ideas, making them as subtle and inviting as the lines and tints used to give them life.

Shin-hanga, or “new print,” a printmaking movement developed in the 1920s, is also represented. Created by Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), The Road to Nikko (1928) is an expert illustration, with nuance of color-it allows us a view through a keyhole into bucolic serenity. In the image, a sole villager walks a path cut through a forest, a large basket on the voyager’s back. The shadows of tall trees appear to envelope the figure, yet the light ahead seems to be leading, even pulling forward-both the figure and our eyes.

In addition to the prints, a collection of inrōs and netsukes-ornate sculpted fasteners for sashes, also called obis-are also on display, adding to the exhibit’s impressive marriage of the real and wholly unreal.

If there’s one “non-floating” and earthbound gripe about the show, it would be the Millner Gallery’s routinely darkened environment and decision to create a shadow-dominated gallery space.

This low lighting may be conducive to a “relaxed” viewing experience, but the pieces are difficult to enjoy. While I was in the space viewing the prints, a group of high schoolers was also reviewing the works. A recurring whispered and giggled complaint by the students: “I can’t really see it … why is it so dark?” This might seem like some minor hairsplitting, but there were at least 15 students-a captive audience, one might say-who then shuffled out of the gallery as baffled by the low-bulb, 40-watt lighting as they were intrigued by the (badly lit) woodblock prints. Why exhibit such remarkable art that can barely be seen?

We asked the museum about this, and they replied: “The lighting in this gallery is low for the safety of the artwork. According to best practices in collection care, works on paper should be on display no more than 12 weeks out in a five-year period and light levels must be kept low.”

While the Cummer has been (no pun intended) hard-pressed to feature the kinds of cutting-edge, contemporary works once routinely exhibited during former director Hope McMath’s tenure, with Fields of Color: The Art of Japanese Printmaking, the museum shows that it remains the best game in town to experience rare, historical artworks from around the globe.