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The Women of Shin Hanga: The Judith and Joseph Barker Collection of Japanese Prints

Hood Quarterly, spring 2013
Allen Hockley Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Dartmouth College, and curator of the exhibition

Initial encounters with the prints in this exhibition might suggest to first-time viewers that they are little more than beautifully rendered pictures of fashionable women. Such an assessment accurately but only partially characterizes the viewing experience the artists intended for them. In early-twentieth-century Japan, all artists depicting female subjects strived to strike a balance between the impact of modernity and the legacies of deeply entrenched cultural values concerning women and art. This was especially so for artists of the shin hanga (new print) movement: as they aspired to carve out a place for their conception of contemporary female subjects, they were, of their own choosing, bound by precedents and practices of a woodblock-printing tradition more than two centuries in the making. Shin hanga representations of women thus offer an intriguing perspective on the aesthetics, cultural values, and social mores of a nation and its artists struggling to reconcile past and present.

The world inhabited by shin hanga artists and the women they depicted was the direct product of Japan’s rapid modernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two hundred years of self-imposed isolation came to an end in the mid-1850s, when pressure from Europe and America forced Japan to open its ports to foreign trade. A desire to avoid colonization at any cost led the Japanese government to embrace an aggressive regimen designed to modernize the nation’s economic, industrial, military, and social infrastructures. Victories in wars with China in the mid-1890s and with Russia in the mid-1910s suggest that some aspects of the program were remarkably successful. Reforming social institutions was far more complicated, however. In the initial decades after the opening of the ports, Japan enthusiastically embraced Euro-American social and cultural values. Modernization was, in effect, Westernization. But by the 1880s, conservative intellectuals, educators, and government officials began to question the loss of indigenous traditions and national identity. The roles of both women and the arts in the nation’s social and cultural fabric were highly contested as the impact of modernization came under ever-increasing scrutiny.

The diverse backgrounds of the shin hanga artists in this exhibition provide telling evidence of modernization’s impact on the arts. Art training in pre-modernization Japan typically came through master-disciple relationships. Some shin hanga artists followed this path by apprenticing with designers of traditional prints. Others trained as typesetters, lithographers, and illustrators for commercial publishers or in government ministries before taking up print design. Many attended art schools—a distinctly foreign institution—seeking instruction in either Western-style or traditional Japanese painting. The highly competitive media environment brought about by modernization also affected the careers of shin hanga artists. None enjoyed the luxury of designing only prints. Many also worked as illustrators of newspapers, magazines, and serialized novels while others designed book covers, posters, postcards, and advertising brochures. Most pursued highly successful careers as painters, their works frequently appearing in prestigious national exhibitions.

How, then, did tradition and modernity intersect in shin hanga depictions of female subjects? Artists of the shin hanga movement, from its inception in the mid-1910s through its demise in the mid- 1950s, devoted their energy and talents to revitalizing the Japanese woodblock print tradition that had waned with the introduction of lithography, copperplate engraving, collotype printing, and photography from Europe and America. Shin hanga artists perceived that traditional print genres retained their appeal despite Japan’s ongoing modernization. Kabuki audiences still sought woodblock-printed likenesses of star actors. Flowerand-bird images still possessed their auspicious and seasonal associations. Rural scenery, rustic villages, and natural wonders depicted in traditional landscape prints evoked feelings of nostalgia for a rapidly urbanizing nation. Similarly, depictions of women lost none of the appeal of their pre-modern antecedents. Like the designers of traditional prints, shin hanga artists understood that contemporary fashions and social mores appealed as much to twentieth-century viewers as they did to their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century counterparts. Although images of contemporary women were widely available in new media imported from the West, shin hanga artists captured the attention of audiences because they also retained the production methods used by their predecessors.

The prints in this exhibition aptly demonstrate the importance of traditional production methods to shin hanga depictions of women. Artists focused their attention on hairstyles, cosmetics, clothing, and fashion accessories, as these were the most recognizable markers of contemporary women. Block carvers and printers deployed traditional skills along with new techniques they developed to replicate and enhance not just the look of these important signifiers, but also their material and tactile qualities. Intricately carved and meticulously printed coiffures often include hundreds of individual strands of hair. Subtle applications of color, carefully blended with flesh tones, convey the look of cosmetics, lip color, and eye shadow. Overprinting and tonal blending capture the deep hues of the natural dyes used for Japanese fabrics. The combination of fibrous paper, careful manipulation of the baren (the tool used in hand printing), and embossing replicates the weight and texture of creped or embroidered cloth. Ground mica mixed with pigment highlights the metallic properties of jewelry, hair ornaments, and mirrors. In the competitive media environment of early twentieth-century Japan, these traditional production methods helped distinguish shin hanga representations of women from those in imported Western media.

Efforts on the part of shin hanga artists to preserve traditional subjects and production methods did not preclude their engagement with contemporary social and cultural issues concerning women. Courtesans from licensed brothel districts—favorite subjects for traditional print artists—are not found in shin hanga because fierce lobbying by feminists and Christian groups drove legal prostitution from the public eye. Shin hanga artists also chose to avoid women engaged in new forms of unlicensed prostitution associated with bars, cafés, and dance halls. The demimonde is nonetheless well represented in shin hanga by geisha, whose numbers grew substantially as women from impoverished rural districts flocked to the capital in search of employment. Political activists, feminists, and women authors are absent from shin hanga despite their high profile in other news and visual media. Although most of the women appearing in shin hanga wear traditional garments, have hair styled in contemporary but conventional coiffures, and exhibit the self-effacing attitudes expected of women in polite society, none represent “good wives and wise mothers,” the conservative ideal promoted by educators and government officials.

There are notable exceptions to the general preference shin hanga artists exhibit for traditional dress and hairstyles, however. Distinguished by their bobbed hair and provocative clothing, “modern girls” added a distinctly Westernized subject to the repertoire of shin hanga artists. Academics, newspaper and magazine editors, and social commentators of all political persuasions regarded the modern girl as animated, flirtatious, and promiscuous. Her reputedly loose morals represented a controversial departure from the good wife, wise mother ideology and the more conventional representations of female subjects in shin hanga. The female nude—a decidedly Western conception—is also common among shin hanga representations of women. Some artists came to this subject through their training in Western-style art academies, where life-drawing of nude models was a part of the curriculum. The women featured in their designs possess a corporeality not found in traditional prints. The predominance of scenes depicting nude women at baths or hot springs, a subject with iconographic precedents in traditional prints, reveals the efforts of shin hanga artists to assert a Japanese rationale for a subject associated with Western art. Depictions of nude subjects and the hybrid practices they engendered reveal shin hanga artists’ engagement with ongoing national debates concerning representations of women in the arts.

The Women of Shin Hanga presents a selection of prints from the Judith and Joseph Barker Collection that is uniquely qualified to explore the tensions between tradition and modernity in shin hanga depictions of women. Twenty-four prints published between 1767 and 1897 provide an overview of approaches to female subjects by leading designers of traditional prints working prior to and during Japan’s rapid modernization in late 1800s. Highlighting presentational strategies and production methods, this survey of early prints functions as prelude to the second part of the exhibition, which features sixty-six prints representing the work of shin hanga’s most notable illustrators of female subjects. Ranging from conservatively dressed women in traditional costumes to geisha, modern girls to nudes, these prints display the interests, concerns, and proclivities of shin hanga artists and their audiences. Key block proofs and multiple editions of some designs in the exhibition expose the intricate processes of shin hanga production. The pristine quality of prints from the Barker Collection affords a rare opportunity to experience the technological marvels, tactile sensibilities, and visual impact of shin hanga while exploring the contributions of this tradition to early-twentieth-century conceptualizations of Japanese women.

This exhibition is on view from April 6 through July 28, 2013. It was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and generously supported by Yoko Otani Homma and Shunichi Homma M.D., Class of 1977, the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund, and the Eleanor Smith Fund.

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