The first thing I noticed upon entering the exhibit was that Repro Japan looks like pieces of Japanese culture sewn together. It is not organized by chronology, region or style as one would expect in other exhibits that examine the culture of a particular country. Rather, the two galleries are organized by rough groupings of mediums, ranging from textiles and woodcuts to manga, 3D prints, and cosplay costumes and performances.
The exhibition first invites you to discover textiles and prints from the Edo period (1603-1868). During the Edo period, an interesting cycle was in play. New fabric printing technologies inspired by woodblock printing techniques incorporated new patterns into popular fashion. The woodcuts in turn depicted these designs on clothing worn by kabuki artists, courtesans, and other subjects of the prints. A remarkable work was that of Utagawa Kunisada Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ichizō III as Iwami Jūtarō (1860). I immediately noticed the abstract background of pink rectangular patterns contrasting with the gray; the surprisingly modern composition of using the background to create a specific aesthetic rather than accurately representing what was actually behind the figure hints at the creativity of Japanese engravers of the time. The juxtaposition of the replica shiborizome patterns (tie-dyed) made on wood on Ichizō’s clothes with real shiborizome on the hanjoban (short undercoat) alluded to a process of reproduction between the different artistic communities of Japan. The commonalities in methodology and pronounced graphic designs between woodblock print and fabric print tell the process of Japanese artists drawing inspiration from other artisans and artists.
Repro Japan also highlights how printmaking continues to influence artists today, especially manga and anime artists. Telling a story with a sequence of hand-crafted panels has flourished in the form of hand-painted graphic novels and animated cels these days. It is easy to see the techniques used in printmaking from the Edo period reflected in modern manga or anime creations.
It is also important to note the dynamism and unique composition that the works share. For example, look at Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s Yamato Takeru and Kawakami no Takeru (1885). While the abstract background, alluding to a sunset, highlights the characters, Yoshitoshi’s expert composition conveys a powerful and heroic thrust. Directly to the right of Yamato Takeru and Kawakami no Takeru is the oversized animation cell from Fighting spirit TV Series, Episode 13 (2000). As you exit the 1885 print, the context instantly changes, from the heroic sword battle of two mythical Japanese figures to an intense fight between non-Japanese athletes. However, what remains intact is the unique dynamism – just by looking at the two works, your body feels a direction and a force that explodes out of the picture. Making drawn images vivid and powerful was the culmination of centuries spent perfecting the infusion of a still image with energy.
The exhibit also tells a nuanced story about oppression, particularly around Orientalism and sexism. For example, Felice Beato Moos’mie (ca. 1868) from the Views of Japan album portrays Japanese people and culture in a condescending light to make photographs more acceptable to Western audiences. Even the original plaque just below the photograph, written by James W. Murray, is written in a condescending tone: “[a]And as the houses of the common are always more or less open, and we can say that they live in public, a freedom and an openness are generated. Whereas Beato was a commercial photographer selling works to Western audiences, Moos’mie is a prime example of how locking East Asia into exotic and condescending settings has sold so well.
I also spent a lot of time in front Double mirror reflections of a beauty becoming glamorous (1823) by Utagawa Kunisada. The imagery of a woman looking at herself in a mirror is reminiscent of familiar images, possibly that of François Boucher Madame de Pompadour at her toilet (around 1760). It got me thinking: what is the desire to observe “beautiful women” up close, perhaps undermining their privacy, and framing them under control? Why can we see instances of this form of voyeurism in fine art across different cultures? What makes Madame de Pompadour’s toilet look like a demonstration of strength and power while that of Kunisada Beauty is portrayed as oblivious, innocent and perhaps even docile?
All that being said, Repro Japan is not a simple exhibition. It sounds much more like a general survey of Japan’s cultural heritage than an understandable message. On time the works seem to lack context and are loosely linked. If you expect to be spoon fed a poignant perspective on Japanese visual culture, you will be disappointed. The objects were teeming with interesting stories, but at times it felt like they were behind a veil of neutrality rather than being unveiled through a cohesive, sharp narrative. Walking through the galleries was certainly a rewarding and educational experience, but it certainly feels a lot more like a lecture than a conversation with the works of art.