If you haven't already seen it you need to get over to Edo Pop at the Minneapolis Art Institute. It closes January 8, 2011 so you still have some time. But don't dilly dally about going because you're going to want to go at least twice!
The subtitle of the show is "The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints" and that will be everywhere in evidence if you know your French Impressionists and their embracing of notan and Japanese compositional use of negative space. (There's a small related show on the main floor right opposite the shop that you also need to check out.) But these Japanese prints from the Edo period influence what we still see in our visual arts world today in so many ways I can't even begin to delineate them.
Printmaking, in ways subtle and not so subtle, reflects and feeds the current culture that surrounds it. There is an immediacy to it that often leaks out of fine art. And in fine art printing, if one is compelled to make such a distinction, there is still a grittiness of effort and sweat that stays with the print, screaming, "I'm one of many, but damn I'm special."
Printmakers are the cool dudes on the block. They may be misfits or elegant observers. Some modern print makers can't even mumble a sentence and are socially inept, and I'm sure that was the case in the past as well. But what they all share is an immediacy of creation and dissemination which creates cultural ripples. In an age before television or radio (let's just leave the internet out of it) printing was the bomb. And often quite literally—which is why I used that colloquial expression. It is impossible to think of the American Revolution and not think of the printers working to a patriotic necessity, creating and nurturing a culture of revolt. Printing and printmaking create the lifeblood of a moment in time. Just as important they leave a tangible record of that moment.
OK, so you can tell that printing really matters to me.
Go look at the work of Suzuki Harunobu (1724/25-1770) and tell me it doesn't excite you. Look at how he handles ripples in water or gentle drifts and puffs of snow in a landscape—with blind embossing. And when he looks at fabric and seeks to capture the embroidered texture his barren rubs the elastic long-fibered Japanese paper deep into the small recesses of his detailed carving so that when the printed paper is pealed back—instant dimensional embroidery!
This is the observer's eye in love with detail.
There's no way around it. The guy who printed those prints was a dude. If you look at those prints and do not want to immediately meet this guy and talk to him about his craft and creativity, and composition and idea generation, or the latest in ladies' fashions and textiles, then I think you might be in a coma.
But wait, there's more—in this exhibit we also see the grandparents of the graphic novel. Page after page of intricately cut illustrations printed painstakingly in bulk to reach a voracious audience. In Hokusai's "Flower Thief" composition we might not be seeing the birth of comics but that's the toddler stage, the stage where the child gets up and walks and you know he's on to something and life will never be the same. Hokusai pushes the envelope of the page so much in that composition that it pulsates with breath. And comics artists try to do this everyday in their studios today.
Don't be so taken with seeing Hokusai's iconic "Wave" in person that you miss staring at the image wrapped divider they display it (and a couple other prints) on. Looking at the blown up wave as background you'll see the long, strong fibers of the Japanese printmaking paper. Paper that made all this possible.
And don't think that you can skip the show and pick up some catalog of prints to view later when the halftone process of CMYK printing rises like a veil between you and the art. There is a delicacy of line in Hiroshige's travel images that you can't pick up from viewing reproductions. In his distant hills there is no outline, simply the meeting of the sky color's edge with blank paper, or another printed color. Hiroshige is creating a visual dissertation on "when not to have a line."
Born in a land of monsoons and raised in a home where Asian art expressed our shared compositional norm, Hiroshige's "Rain Over Ohasi Bridge," is the only rain I really understand—that slanted, incessant pelting. The smell of the water rises off his print.
In his "Fireworks at Ryoguku Bridge" the rocket's trail and the moment before a firework explodes is captured in the same print with the moment of another explosion still hanging in the sky. This is more than visual depiction. This is temporal encapsulation. This is the point in time in the process of fireworks which causes us as viewers of a fireworks display to catch our breath in our throats. We hear the siren squeal of the ascent, we are suspended for that brief moment before explosion, we delight as the full explosion hovers above us. It's all here. He knew exactly what to capture to get the entire experience. That's observation cubed! That's illustration at its best. That defies definition as fine or popular art. It's just art. It prefigures film. It's printmaking.
The show ends with modern riffs by contemporary practitioners and there are some interesting images there as well. But the real flavor and nutrition in this show is the opening rooms where the styles and proclivities of these master printmakers set the bar for what anyone who has ever pulled a print since has tried to do.
Be on the look out for colorful trading cards related to the exhibit. These have changed throughout the exhibit, but my friend Tom was able to locate two different cards on the same day. (At the ticket counter and the exhibit entrance.)
Note: In an effort to keep my eyes fresh I went to the exhibit knowing I wouldn't be reading the signage. I wanted to save my eyes for the art. Also there was that incident at the Italian art show where I so hated the canned commentary that I started muttering and drew the attention of the guards! I really don't want to be banned for life. My point is I didn't read any of the signage. I looked to see the artist's name and subject if that much. Mostly I just absorbed. My friend Tom, who accompanied me (and was probably grateful that I wasn't muttering, but only running back and forth from picture to picture urging him to come and look at some wonder) did read the signage and said that there was nothing about printing techniques. It's sad. So if you're going to go and you don't understand printing, take a printer. He (or she) may not be able to do more than mumble, but he'll be able to point out what to look for. And it will be fun to watch the beads of sweat pop out on his forehead as the awe burns through his skull.