When examining art from centuries ago, it seems logical to categorize works of art by geographic location: different regions simply developed unique styles. However, the Smart Museum’s latest exhibit, “Awash in Color,” turns this notion on its head.
Program for Le Theatre Libre by George Auriol and Poppies by Katsushika Hokusai, both of which are prints of flowers, from France and Japan respectively, are the preview to the exhibit, which showcases the complementary but distinct natures of approximately two centuries of French and Japanese color printmaking. Poppies uses thicker lines and bolder colors, while Program for Le Theatre Libre is slightly more subdued, rendered in pastel shades. Next to these two paintings is a side-by-side timeline detailing how printmaking spread across East Asia and France, highlighting the history of printmaking traditions, and Japonisme, or the French love of Japanese art.
“The intention of the exhibition is to allow viewers to see a dual history in the making across two countries, and come to their own conclusions about the extent to which these two traditions were compatible when they interacted, or whether they come from two different sources,” said exhibit curator Anne Leonard.
The works are organized in a parallel manner chronologically, the walls of the exhibit displaying works from different time periods in the two countries. Some sections display works containing the same subject matter side-by-side, allowing for direct comparisons.
Immediately to the right of the entrance, the origins of French printmaking from the 1700s are highlighted, with Phillipe Carpintier’s Abbot Saint Restores a Blind Man’s Sight, a copperplate carving with limited color that was a precursor to more colorful prints that appeared in France later. Another highlight of this section of early French prints is Philibert Louis Debucourt’s The Ascent, which depicts a secret rendezvous of lovers who playfully undress one another behind a barn by night.
Opposite the section about early French prints, is a section displaying early Japanese prints. The minimal use of color in these works is apparent in A Floating World Monkey Trainer on the Siunida River by Ohumura Masanobu, which depicts a monkey trainer on a boat riding with three Japanese ladies playing instruments. This work is one of the first color prints, using a style called benizuri-e, meaning it contains small splashes of pink and green.
A video clip detailing how Japanese made colored woodblock prints plays on loop for viewers to enjoy. The video shows the entire process, detailing the level of intricacy needed to carve a woodblock print.
“Another aim of the exhibit is to help viewers gain an understanding of how difficult it was to print in color at this time,” said Leonard.
Multiple sections contain both French and Japanese prints of nature and landscapes, underscoring that the countries, though distant geographically, had an influence on each other artistically. The ocean is a recurring subject in the Japanese prints, and a section of works shows how French artists depicted the ocean in their own way.
The exhibit also shows how printmaking expanded and changed in both countries over the course of two hundred years. A section of the exhibition entitled “Diversity and Eclecticism in Japanese and French” art hosts a hodgepodge of prints and lithographs as both styles were changing from the mid-1800s to 1900, ranging from pop art that appears more commercial to art depicting nobility. Another section contains paintings that diverge from the traditional model of printing as Japanese printmakers tried to elevate the form from one of popular art to a fine art. Yamamoto Kanae’s Brothers in Brittany, showcased in this section, differs from older prints in its abstract human figures that depict the general form of the body, but do not reveal any details.
“Awash in Color” spurs the viewer to compare and contrast the works of both cultures and decide how well the traditions pair with each other. The level of influence the cultures had on each other despite their geographic separation makes the exhibit a worthwhile study in the transposition of artistic style.
Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. October 4-January 20, 2013. Tuesday-Wednesday, 10am-4pm; Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday, 10am-4pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. Free. (773)702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu