Japanese Prints in Transition captures rich history and breadth of print traditions

Jul 17, 2023

Great Wave

Katsushika Hokusai, (1760-1849).Cresting Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa (The Great Wave),from the seriesThirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830-1832. Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of theFine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Japanese Prints in Transition captures centuries of Japan’s cultural transformation through its rich print history

Japanese Prints in Transition: From the Floating World to the Modern World

Legion of Honor museum / April 6–August 18, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO — Spanning two pivotal eras of social and political change in Japan, Japanese Prints in Transition traces the artistic development of 18th-century ukiyo-e (or “floating world pictures”) to the brightly colored woodblock prints of the imperial Meiji era, following the ouster of the shogun in 1868. These new prints and their Western-inflected imagery reflected a program of rapid modernization and increased interactions with other nations. Drawn entirely from the holdings of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts—one of the most significant museum collections of Japanese prints in the United States—the exhibition brings together nearly 150 works, presenting the rich history and wide breadth of the medium.

Japanese Prints in Transition offers visitors a singular opportunity to explore influential Japanese printmaking traditions, from iconic ukiyo-e to the less widely known prints of the late 19th-century Meiji era,” noted Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We are proud to steward a significant collection of Japanese prints in our Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, and we are delighted to share these treasures with our audiences at the Legion of Honor in a presentation that will speak to a period of profound change in Japan, during which shifts in printmaking practice closely reflected the country's dramatic transition from isolationist policies to wider engagement with Europe and the West."

The impact of Japanese aesthetics on Western art, from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to Art Nouveau and the Viennese Secession, is well documented. Japanese Prints in Transition instead explores the alternative perspective by presenting the ways Western influences affected artistic production in Japan. From the thriving port of Yokohama, which saw a large concentration of foreigners by 1860, to the toppling of the shogunate in 1868 and the Meiji Restoration, the exhibition underscores corresponding shifts in the style, materials, and subject matter of Japanese printmaking traditions. Fascination with European and American travelers frequenting the port city—which had been closed to the West for more than 250 years—was soon reflected in woodblock prints, with artists turning to Western newspapers and magazines as inspiration for their depictions of the newcomers’ distinctive manners of dress, architecture, and entertainments. 

In its first decade, the Meiji government encouraged print publishers to promote images of the modernizing agenda of the state, one that strongly favored international trade and military strength. Printed with imported chemical aniline dyes, their red and purple hues were striking—bold, “modern” colors that seemed to match their subjects: Western industry, fashion, technology, and government. 

Japanese Prints in Transition pairs the vibrant woodblock prints of the Meiji era (1868–1912) with the delicately colored prints of the preceding Tokugawa era(1603–1867). In the bustling Yoshiwara “pleasure quarter” of 18th-century Edo, now present-day Tokyo, the attractions of the Floating World drove popular demand for depictions of its celebrities. Famed courtesans and kabuki actors populated prints of the day, as did well-known warriors, myths, and legends in the later years of the period. In the 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige would also introduce mesmerizing landscapes to the genre, often rendering sea and sky in the pigment Prussian blue, newly imported from the West.

For the first time in more than 10 years, Hokusai’s The Great Wave (ca. 1830-1832) — considered today to be the most iconic of all Japanese prints—will be presented alongside eight other works from his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and many of Hiroshige’s equally masterful views of Edo. Japanese Prints in Transition offers a rare opportunity to experience these works in person, as the extreme light sensitivity of the medium precludes more frequent public display. 

Prints by contemporary artist Masami Teraoka, whose work grapples with the cultural impact of American fast food in Japan, will serve as a contemporary postscript. A separate gallery will present a selection of shunga prints, or “spring pictures,” a genre of erotic art that depicts a broad spectrum of sexual desire. Widely produced during the Edo period, these elaborate and imaginative prints featuring a myriad of sexual scenarios had broad appeal and were considered to bring joy, humor, and sensual delight to everyday life.

“Numbering more than 3,000 works, the Japanese prints collection constitutes a notable and historic facet of the Achenbach's holdings,” said Lauren Palmor, associate curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view some of the most significant Japanese prints in history, which testify to the enduring importance of the medium. Additionally, the introductory gallery will offer a window into printmaking processes, materials, and techniques, revealing the meticulous craft behind the making of these images.” 

Drawn from the Fine Arts Museums’ Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, this exhibition was conceptualized by former Curator in Charge Karin Breuer. Further organized by Sarah Mackay, former assistant curator of prints and drawings, and by Lauren Palmor, associate curator of American Art, this exhibition reflects the image of a nation in transition.

It is presented exclusively at the Legion of Honor, where the nearby Kanrin Maru Monument commemorates the arrival, in San Francisco on March 17, 1860, of the first Japanese naval ship ever to cross the Pacific. The show is accompanied by an exhibition catalog written by Karin Breuer and Rhiannon Paget and beautifully illustrated with more than 90 woodblock prints drawn from the Museums' permanent collection. Two companion exhibitions, Woodcut: Primary Printmaking and Zuan-cho: Kimono Design in Modern Japan (1868–1912) will run concurrently at the Legion of Honor in the Achenbach Gallery and Reva and David Logan Gallery. 

Exhibition Organization

This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Presenting support by John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, and McEvoy Endowment. Lead support is provided by the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums. Major support comes from Dagmar Dolby. Significant support is provided by Diana Dollar Knowles Fund, Carrick and Andy McLaughlin, and W.L.S. Spencer Foundation. Generous support comes from Trine Sorensen and Michael Jacobson, Thomas and Shelagh Rohlen, and Paul A. Violich. Additional support is provided by The Achenbach Graphic Arts Council, Alexandria and Dwight Ashdown, Sandra and Paul Bessières, Cathy and Howard Moreland, Lynn and Edward Poole, The Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, and Toshiba International Foundation.

About the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts

Covering the development of graphic arts from the 14th century to today, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts (AFGA) is the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s department of works on paper. It houses and stewards the most extensive collection in the western United States, with more than 90,000 works of art, including prints, drawings, photographs, and artists’ books. Selections from the collection are exhibited in dedicated galleries at the de Young and Legion of Honor. The collection is also available for research and study by appointment in the George and Leanne Roberts Seminar Room at the Legion of Honor. 

The foundation is named for Moore and Hazel Achenbach, who gave the core of their collection to the City of San Francisco in 1948 and the remainder upon Mr. Achenbach’s passing in 1963. The department is the repository of a number of archives, including the archive of the Bay Area’s Crown Point Press and Paulson Fontaine Press, and the graphic works of the Los Angeles–based artist Ed Ruscha. It houses the Anderson Graphic Arts Collection and the Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, together with significant holdings of Japanese prints and theater and dance designs.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 

Together, the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park make up the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the largest public arts institution in the city and one of the largest in the United States. Both are located on the land of the Ramaytush Ohlone, the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula. 

 Opened in 1895, the de Young is home to American art from the 17th century through today; textile arts and costumes; African art; Oceanic art; arts of the Americas, and international contemporary art. Opened in 1924, the Legion of Honor displays European painting; sculpture; decorative arts; ancient art; works on paper; and contemporary art.

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