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Six decades on, Japanese printmaking show still captures zeitgeist

Annual exhibit brings modern techniques to traditional art

"Birthday" by Kunio Kaneko, 2019 woodcut, 39 by 58 cm, ed 150. (Courtesy of the College Women's Association of Japan)

TOKYO -- Ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting the "floating world" of Japan between the 17th to 19th centuries have probably done more than any other artistic form in popularizing Japanese art beyond its borders.

Ever since they were discovered by Western travelers when Japan first opened up to the outside world in the mid-19th century after more than two centuries of isolation, the woodblock prints, with their stylized, unapologetically two-dimensional portrayals of genteel lifestyles, have been acclaimed for their distinctively Japanese aesthetic.

While woodblock prints are no longer the social phenomenon they were in Edo Japan (1603-1868), printmaking continues to thrive in contemporary Japan as a vibrant form of expression. The range of approaches and subject matters can be seen in the sheer volume and artistic quality of prints on display at the annual Tokyo print show organized by the College Women's Association of Japan.

The CWAJ Print Show, now in its 63rd year, displays and sells the work of a broad range of contemporary male and female artists, including such leading names as Tadanori Yokoo and Toko Shinoda, as well as first-time participants just launching their careers. As critics have noted, there are few print shows with the history and breadth of the annual CWAJ exhibition. The range of prints on show holds the promise of discovering little-known talent as well as witnessing the evolution of Japanese printmaking.

"Blue and Purple" by Tomoko Ogoshi, 55 by 50 cm, 2018 lithograph. (Courtesy of the College Women's Association of Japan)

Recalling his first visit to the CWAJ Print Show in 1984, Lawrence Smith, keeper emeritus of Japanese antiquities at the British Museum, declared "these prints deserved a wider audience."

This year, the work of 213 artists will be shown from Oct. 23 for four days at the Hillside Forum in Daikanyama, central Tokyo. The pieces have been selected by a jury from about 800 submissions by artists residing in Japan, along with a few works by guest artists. The CWAJ Print Show Award went to "Blue and Purple," an abstract lithograph by Tomoko Ogoshi, which encourages the viewer to peer beyond the brush-like strokes of white ink that cover the canvas to decipher what lies beneath.

Since its inception in 1956, the annual show has evolved considerably and the prints on display this year reflect the remarkable range of available printing techniques, from woodblock to engraving and mezzotint to intaglio, as well as a variety of styles. The first show in 1956 featured just 91 works, all of which were woodblock prints.

A significant number of works, whether done by woodblock or silk screen, stand out for their recognizably Japanese look, both in their subject matter and in their use of flat planes and strong linear outlines.

For example, neither "Chrysanthemum in Autumn," a woodcut in hues of yellow and green by Masahiko Honjo, nor "Poppy No. 13," a silk screen by Kazutoshi Sugiura, would look out of place on a folding screen from the 18th century.

Such prints have a particular appeal to foreign viewers, according to a CWAJ spokeswoman, and their inclusion owes much to the Print Show's history of foreign support from its start.

"Poppy No. 13" by Kazutoshi Sugiura, 2018 silk screen, 39 by 28 cm, ed 25. (Courtesy of the College Women's Association of Japan)

The show was conceived as a way for the CWAJ, a nonprofit organization, to raise funds for its scholarship programs. Many of its early customers were foreigners who could afford to indulge in artistic appreciation when most ordinary Japanese were still trying to improve their living standards.

Foreign collectors have been avid supporters throughout the show's history. Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon's national security adviser, acquired four prints from the 1972 show. Popular author James Michener, an avid collector of Japanese prints, amassed thousands of prints and was on the selection committee in 1971.

While Japanese themes and artistic tradition remain a strong draw of the print show, there are plenty of works that reflect a broad range of stylistic influences and subject matter.

"Praise the Darkness (from J.L. Borges)," by Michiko Hoshino, is a dark and somewhat unsettling lithograph, which references Francisco Goya's nightmarish etchings.

At the other extreme are colorful, dizzying works that harken back to the poster art of the 1960s, beginning with Yokoo's silk screen, "[Dream Arabesque]."

"[Dream Arabesque]" by Tadanori Yokoo, 2017 silk screen, 105 by 76 cm, ed 30. (Courtesy of the College Women's Association of Japan) 

Yoshikatsu Tamekane's woodcut, "Time Axis," juxtaposes dark vertical and horizontal panels with blurred gradations of blue and feather-like objects that seem to be fluttering down into a deep void. It is a visual representation of his belief that "we are like ships that carry life as it travels through time and space."

Keisuke Yamamoto's "Light Time Silence #29" is a lithograph in black and white depicting an empty room with a single empty chair facing three open windows. "The empty space is a reflection of my view of the world as a lonely place and the chair placed there is the object on which I project myself," Yamamoto explains.

The diverse range of styles appeals to a broad range of tastes -- a key factor in the enduring popularity of the CWAJ exhibition.

Unlike museum exhibitions, this show is not aimed at showcasing groundbreaking work or exploring an artistic trend or social theme, but is primarily a commercial and charitable event.

The CWAJ began life in 1949 as a nonprofit organization providing scholarships to Japanese women studying abroad, foreign women studying in Japan and visually impaired men and women studying either in Japan or abroad. Recently it added a scholarship program for nursing students in Fukushima Prefecture, site of the nuclear plant damaged in the 2011 tsunami.

"Light Time Silence #29" by Keisuke Yamamoto, 2017 lithograph, 70 by 95 cm, ed 28. (Courtesy of the College Women's Association of Japan) 

For participating artists, the show provides a much-needed venue for promoting and selling their work. For buyers there is always the hope that they will discover the next big artist or buy the work of an established one for a reasonable price.

"A major motivation for participating in the show is that the prints sell well," said Yamamoto, who has shown work at the CWAJ show for 11 years.

Both the commercial success and popularity of the exhibit have also played an invaluable role in nurturing budding print artists in Japan -- providing them with publicity and an opportunity to display their work while gaining the moral support of an enthusiastic audience.

"Time Axis" by Yoshikatsu Tamekane, 2017 woodcut, 67 by 49 cm, ed 20. (Courtesy of the College Women's Association of Japan)

"When I was young, I was so grateful to the CWAJ for selling my work," recalled Tamekane, a 26-year veteran of the show. Although now a well-established artist with pieces in the collection of the Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Tamekane, like other established artists, continues to provide pieces to the show in support of its charitable objectives.

Print art does not usually command the eye-popping prices associated with art works in prestigious galleries. Prints at the CWAJ show range from 5,000 yen to 400,000 yen ($46 to $3,600).

As a time-honored tradition in Japan, printmaking continues to attract artists for reasons that are partly cultural and partly emotional.

Although Tamekane first discovered the joy of printmaking in elementary school, where it was part of the curriculum, he believes that early childhood experiences such as carving woodblocks to make New Year's greeting cards led him to a career in printmaking.

Yamamoto said it was the emotional roller coaster ride of printmaking that drew him to the medium. "The excitement and suspense I feel when what I have drawn is printed on paper, the joy I experience when I feel I was able to create something exceeding my skills, or the sadness I feel when the opposite happens, are feelings that I believe ... everyone who makes prints has experienced," he noted.

The work of 213 artists will be shown at the 63rd Print Show from Oct. 23-27 at the Hillside Forum in Daikanyama.

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