Kiyochika: Master of the Night

The Japanese city of Edo ceased to exist Sept. 3, 1868. Renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers, the city became the central experiment in a national drive towards modernization.

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), a self-taught artist and minor retainer of the Tokugawa shogun deposed in 1868, returned to Tokyo from self-imposed exile in 1874 to discover his hometown transformed by railroads, steamships, gaslights and brick buildings—all beyond imagination just a few years earlier. He set out to record these new scenes, where old and new stood together in awkward alliance, in an ambitious series of 100 woodblock prints.

While a devastating fire engulfed the city in 1881, effectively ending the project, the 93 prints he had completed were unlike anything previously produced by a Japanese artist. Kiyochika used age-old techniques to produce the prints themselves, but chose unusually subdued colors and mimicked the look and feel of Western photographs, copperplate engraving and oil painting.

Widely regarded as Japan’s first artist with a distinctly modern tone, Kiyochika conveyed a sense of curiosity, detachment and melancholy about the vistas and events he depicted. His innovative use of color explored the possibilities of light—both man-made and natural, from dusk to dawn—and subjects drift through moody shades of gray and blue interspersed with fireworks, moonlight, gaslight and fireflies. Equally startling are his human figures. Often silhouetted, they are at once together and alone—observers, rather than actors, in an oddly quiet landscape.

“Kiyochika upends the celebratory role of the cityscape in Japanese art and instead creates a nagging sense of unease,” said James Ulak, exhibition curator and senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “His view is a stark one, of men and women on the verge of a world with all the old props kicked away. There are no heavens or hells; no intercessory gods or troublesome demons. Some viewers say they can feel the silence in his prints.”

“Kiyochika: Master of the Night” is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery March 29–July 12. Free public programs include a performance of Western music of Kiyochika’s era by Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio (March 27; 7:30 p.m.) and “ImaginAsia: Illuminated Nights,” a drop-in workshop where families can create nightscapes of favorite evening activities (March 29 and 30, and April 5, 6, 12 and 13). A film series based on the theme of nocturnes, featuring movies that occur solely at night, will be announced later in the spring.

Posted: 25 March 2014
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