Edo-Pop: the enduring appeal of Japanese prints

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is currently showing an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints that date back to the Edo period (1615-1868).

The prints are known as ukiyo-e, or “images of the floating world,” and they flourished at a time when a burgeoning middle class was taking an interest in the arts.


Kitagawa Utamaro, Love for a Farmer’s Wife, 1795-96

The show is the culmination of ten years work by curator Matthew Welch, and showcases 160 of the finest prints in the museum’s extensive collection.

Welch says the ukiyo-e artists were often the same people who painted signboards and banners for Kabuki theater performances. While it’s hard to believe when looking at these prints, they were originally sold as popular street art – the modern day equivalent of posters.

They were popular because they reflected the transitory and up-to-the-minute interests and tastes of the chonin (townsmen). The more fastidious among them would carefully save their prints in small woven lacquer or wooden boxes. Others might paste them up to the paper of shoji doors. There is even a theory that people tacked images of their favorite Kabuki actors to the backs of their kimono before attending a play! Because they were mass-produced, momentarily fashionable, and cheap, they were appreciated but not particularly valued. Hence, it is thought that only a fraction of the total output has come down to us today.

The exhibition is divided into several themes, including Beautiful women, Kabuki, Pleasures and Pastimes, and Sightseeing and Travel. Like Pop artists of the 1960s and 1970s in Britain and the United States, ukiyo-e artists were interested in fashion and other trends. Thus the name of the show: Edo-Pop.


Katsushika Hokusai, Poppies, ca. 1832

During a tour of the exhibition, Welch recounted how a visiting Japanese dignitary couldn’t believe some of the prints were originals, because they were in such outstanding condition. So how did the MIA end up with such an extensive and high quality collection of Japanese prints?

While many collectors have donated prints to the museum over the years, Welch says the majority of the MIA’s approximately 3000 prints come from two collectors: Richard P. Gale and Louis W. Hill, Jr., grandson of James J. Hill.

Both men had a mania for Japanese art. Richard Gale was an extremely demanding collector and connoisseur who constantly sought to refine his collection by selling or trading up. Consequently, his collection of woodblock prints was relatively small, numbering about 240 works of spectacular quality. While Mr. Gale collected prints from early 18th through the mid 19th century, his holdings were particularly strong in 18th century material picturing the reigning beauties of the pleasure quarters and famous Kabuki actors.

Louis W. Hill, Jr., on the other hand, loved Japan and collected prints that reflected the Japanese landscape, especially those by Utagawa Hiroshige. Of the nearly 2,000 prints that Mr. Hill donated, over half are by Hiroshige and 75% of those represent landscape views.


Hakone–View of the Lake, by Utagawa Hiroshige

From the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, ca. 1833

The final gallery of the exhibition focuses on the lasting appeal and influence of these prints on contemporary artists, including filmmakers and sculptors. I’ll write more about that aspect of the exhibition next week.

Edo-Pop runs through January 8 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Welch says he hopes visitors are smitten by the sheer beauty and technical finesse of the prints, and amazed by their sophistication and richness.


Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, ca 1834