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Fashioning imprints of progress

Times Staff Writer

JAPAN cast off its feudal past and roared into the modern age with enough drama, bloodshed and angst to inspire many an artist, writer and filmmaker. With peasant conscripts battling seasoned samurai, the emperor emerging as a public figure and Japanese ladies and gentlemen adopting the latest Western fashions, the Meiji period (1868-1912) was a time of change, both wrenching and exhilarating.

“The ancient and the modern are at war for the soul of Japan,” an interpreter explains to a clueless Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” a 2003 film epic. Cruise, playing a burned-out U.S. Army captain, is hired to train the upstart imperial army to vanquish the samurai, but he is captured by his noble adversaries. Hollywood being Hollywood, he eventually joins their cause, rekindles his inner flame and lives happily ever after.

The story line is more complicated in “Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints,” opening Saturday at Scripps College’s Williamson Gallery in Claremont. The exhibition surveys the work of Yoshu Chikanobu, a real samurai who became an immensely popular and prolific woodblock print designer in Meiji Japan. His prints -- created as advertisements for theatrical productions, illustrations for newspapers and educational books, and entertainment for the leisure class -- document a society in transition.

Born into a military caste in the late Edo period, Chikanobu was trained in calligraphy, painting and literature as well as martial arts. He fought to maintain the traditional way of life but escaped serious punishment because of his youthful reputation as an artist. Resuming his artistic career in 1871 at 33, he began to produce a huge body of work that would merge social history with self-expression.

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“At first, he celebrated the modernization of Japan,” said Bruce A. Coats, a Scripps professor of art history and humanities who organized the exhibition. “But as he grew older, he began to resist the changes and focus on traditional culture and nostalgic recollections of life in Edo Japan. His late works are mostly rosy-eyed views of the past.”

Covering about 30 years of Chikanobu’s career, the show offers 60 prints from the college’s 275-piece collection, the largest holding of the artist’s work outside Japan. The collection began with a gift of one print in 1944 and grew enormously with a donation of 101 Chikanobu works in 1993. Seizing an opportunity to concentrate on an artist who had been well known but little studied, Coats purchased many additional prints with funds from an endowment for teaching Japanese art and culture.

Few documents chronicling Chikanobu’s life and work have survived, but Coats has gathered bits of information from many sources. The exhibition, catalog and a symposium to be held Sept. 15 through 17 at Scripps constitute the first effort in the U.S. to study the artist’s work in depth. Funded by the Mellon, Blakemore and Japan foundations and the Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Art Studies in Kyoto, Japan, the show will travel to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.; Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.; Denison University in Granville, Ohio; Boston University; and the International Christian University in Tokyo.

Chikanobu rose to fame in the 1880s as a painter and designer of highly detailed, vividly colored woodblock prints, known as brocade prints or nishiki-e. He is best known for depictions of beautiful women and sweet children, but he had an abiding interest in history and traditional literature, as the exhibition indicates. The subject matter encompasses gripping current events of the era and timeless pleasures, public spectacles and private moments.

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The earliest prints were executed in audaciously bright, fashionably modern reds, violets and greens. Some works depict kabuki theater productions with then up-to-date themes, such as samurai insurrections; other works are humorously erotic or startlingly gory. The relaxation of censorship during the Meiji period allowed artists to portray such real-life horrors as “The Stabbing of Seven People at the Sugidoya,” Chikanobu’s interpretation of a gruesome murder scene in a Tokyo brothel. A section of text in an upper corner of the picture recounts the crime as reported in a newspaper.

The Meiji emperor and empress also play prominent roles in Chikanobu’s work. Before 1868, ordinary Japanese people knew nothing about the royal family, Coats said, but the Meiji government promoted public interest in them to foster a national identity, like that of European countries. Artists were encouraged to portray “the life and times of the rich and famous,” Coats said, and that included royalty. Chikanobu probably never laid eyes on the imperial couple, but he depicted many of their activities and public appearances in prints that have illustrated history books in Japan and elsewhere.

In one work, the emperor opens a world’s fair that brought Western wonders to Tokyo. In another, the emperor and empress watch a lakeside horse race, he in Western military dress, she and her retinue in Japanese court robes. Symbolic fireworks, in the form of parachutes and toy animals and figures, fill the sky above the stands. Chikanobu, who had never seen a horse race, drew the horses going the wrong direction in an earlier version of the print, Coats said. The one on view has them running the right way, counterclockwise.

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Encountering another world

EVIDENCE of the West’s arrival in Japan appears in many of the prints. Two similar compositions of women and children, one group fully attired in European finery and the other in traditional Japanese clothing, provide a striking contrast. In other works, modernity has a relatively subtle presence. A few Japanese people in Western dress may appear in a crowd scene; those who don Japanese clothing may wear eyeglasses, carry newspapers or pose in settings with Western furnishings.

As Chikanobu aged and prospered, his work became softer and more dreamlike, but it also took a moralistic turn. In the 1890s, his concern for preserving traditional values appears in prints that glorify filial piety, motherly love, female etiquette and women’s devotion to their husbands. In one work from a series on famous women, the wife of a provincial governor makes a superhuman effort to stop a heavily burdened ox from falling off a mountain road.

The message, Coats said, is that “great men have great women behind them.”

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Chikanobu’s late prints seem to reflect the mood of an artist who had slowed down and liked nothing better than fantasizing about pretty young women or cooing about cute children and animals. But even as he reminisces and revels in simple pleasures, he seems to have come to terms with change. More often than not, the old and the new merge in peaceful coexistence, suggesting that tradition might be maintained in Japan’s modern age.

In “Girl Doing Calligraphy,” from his 1897 “True Beauties” series, for example, a young girl wears a Japanese kimono and a Western haircut. She practices calligraphy while sitting at a Western-style desk, holding her brush like a pencil.

“I love that print,” Coats said. The image had eluded him as he built the collection, but it came on the market just in time to be purchased and reproduced in the catalog.

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‘Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints’

Where: Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, 1030 Columbia Ave., Claremont

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays during exhibitions; closed Mondays, Tuesdays

Ends: Oct. 22

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Price: Free

Contact: (909) 607-3397; www.scrippscollege.edu/dept/gallery


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