The Legion of Honor: “Japanesque”—So Picturesque!

Before Xmas my husband and I saw an unbelievable art exhibit, “Japanesque”,  at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (see flyer below).  It is such a beautifully organized exhibit of Japanese ukiyoe woodblock prints, from the Legion’s own Achenbach collection. I hadn’t seen such an exquisite collection in one place since a similarly conceived show at the Marmottan  Monet’s Academie des Beaux Arts (www.marmottan.com)  in Paris about four years ago (Les Estampes Japonaises De Claude Monet,  February 2007). The organizing and conceptual strength of the exhibit–“Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism”—is the wide range of 18th and 19th century ukiyoe prints, which influenced European Impressionist artists so much that a tiny duplicate of either the original woodblock print or the Impressionist painting or print is juxtaposed next to each item in the show.  Perhaps the closest facsimile, almost a duplicate of the original Hiroshige (1792-1858)  plum blossom print, is the one by Vincent van Gogh in 1887.  The composition is almost identical to Hiroshige’s print, with Van Gogh  striving to duplicate even the Japanese kanji writing along the sides of his painting. One of my favorite sections of the exhibit, however, is the lesser-known “shunga” style of ukiyoe woodblock prints.  They are “spring paintings”, an oblique allusion to the erotic subject matter of these secretive, but highly prized, depictions of sexual scenes from the courtesan quarters of Tokyo and Kyoto.  My absolute favorite is the famous 1814 woodblock print, “Tako to Ama”,  by Hokusai (see below).  The detail of the original is fascinating and, unbeknownst to many, was featured in episode 3 of the first season of “Mad Men”, the popular TV series of 1950’s Madison Avenue advertising executives and their scintillating private lives.  In one episode—if you blinked, you missed it—was the ukiyoe woodblock print “Tako to Ama” on the back wall of Bert Cooper’s office, the CEO who loves Japanese culture and art.  I thought: “OMG, who would notice the shunga on the wall?!”  Well, guess what?   There is a cult following of shunga, as validated by a recent article, in ArtInfo’s online journal featuring the Hokusai iconic woodblock print. and a specific website dedicated to the art in the Mad Men series  http://artofmadmen.wordpress.com/. So, for a real treat for connoisseurs of Japanese woodblock art, rush to see this tantalizing exhibit of sublime art, including a video tutorial of how woodblock prints are made.  The exhibit closes on January 9, 2011.

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