Drawing on its rich collection of Japanese prints, the U.Va. Art Museum features an exhibition in two parts of nineteenth-century Japanese color woodblock prints.
Nineteenth-century Japanese color woodblock prints can be beautiful, funny, moving and brilliantly imaginative. Their irony and innovative, even tricky, design and subject matter had a great influence on modern Western art. At their best, Japanese color woodblock prints satisfied the psychological needs of commoners in a highly repressive still feudal society. Such prints differed from aristocratic art as they depicted the world of Kabuki theater, high-class courtesans, legends, and ordinary life. The Japanese phrase for prints made for the common people is ukiyo-e: pictures of the floating world. This refers to the Buddhist concept that reality is unstable and deceptive but also suggests the rare freedom to be found in the Entertainment District of Edo, the old name for modern-day Tokyo. Many prints, though great art, were advertisements for the District. Their production required an artist who drew the design, a carver who carved it into the multiple wooden blocks used for printing a sheet, and an inker who applied color to each block. The resulting work was popular yet evocatively literate. Daring much, it explored dream and fact.
This first part of the exhibition is about love. Love in these images may be the doomed love of people from different classes, courageously romantic love, or the illusory but gaudy love found in the Entertainment District of Edo. The second part of the exhibition is entitled "Legend." Often advertising Kabuki theater, these melodramatic prints turned tabloid events into heroic stories of self-sacrifice. They disguised the commercial realities of the Entertainment District of Edo in the mask of lofty literature and brought heroic legend down to earth by ironically putting commoners in roles associated with supposedly virtuous aristocrats. Thus, these popular prints invoking legend turned suffocating reality into liberating poetry—or vice-versa.