A forgotten Japanese 'master of light' printmaker, Kiyochika, finally gets his due

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 28, 2014 

— In 1874, a young artist returned from exile to his Japanese hometown of Edo to find it had a new name, new gas lighting, non-traditional brick buildings, steamships and trains, and was headed full blast in modernization.

So, Kobayashi Kiyochika set about showing the rapid change in his society in a set of 93 woodblock prints, many of which are now on display in a new exhibition, "Kiyochika: Master of the Night," at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington through July 27.

"Kiyochika is a man who plays with light. He identifies sources of light whether they are man-made or reflections" in his prints, said James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

In1868, "a corrupt Shogunal government, 250 years in power, was finally displaced by a group of reform leaders from Western Japan," Ulak said. "The structure we know from movies and novels of samurai and lords, their estates and domains, all crashes between 1868 and 1874. All these structures are eliminated, a constitutional monarchy is established, the city Edo has its name changed to Tokyo," or "Eastern Capital."

The prints show a Japan opening up to the world's influences. An innocuous print of people viewing a show with colored fireworks shows Western influence _ before then, all fireworks were white. A train headed out of town to Takanawa Ushimachi has an American-style smokestack that didn't exist in Japan at the time. Kiyochika apparently cribbed it off a Currier and Ives print. The new gas lamps allowed the city's dwellers to enjoy events held at night.

The Sackler exhibit is broken up topically. There is a section on fires, bridges and others.

For example, in "Bricktown," a print shows a new Ginza. "After a fire in 1871, the leaders contracted with Western architects and rebuilt what would be called the Ginza with a whole row of brick buildings on either side, two or three stories," says Ulak. "They were these great symbols of the 'new.'"

One of the tall semi-transparent scrims that separate the different sections of the exhibit has a photograph of the brick buildings.

The Sackler exhibit includes a table map of Tokyo dotted with numbers. Small numbered reproductions of the prints line the edges of the map. Visitors can match print number to map number to see the now-modern city through Kiyochika's eyes.

A great fire swept through Tokyo in 1881, starting in Kanda Matsueda-cho. Kiyochika's studio burned, ending the production of the prints at No. 93 instead of the more auspicious 100. He went back to a more traditional style of Japanese art. The exhibit has an example of his later work next to one from the great master, Hiroshige, which shows the similarities.

"He's given up the adventure, the starkness, the existentialism, and he wants to go back, or his clients want him to go back or his publisher wants to go back to the comfort zone, turning back from the edge," said Ulak.

Kiyochika faded from the art scene only to reappear briefly during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. He died in 1915.

____ KIYOCHIKA: MASTER OF THE NIGHT Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Washington, D.C. March 29-July 27

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