West Vancouver Museum’s assistant curator, Kirkio Watanabe, travelled to Japan to pick up dozens of perfectly preserved ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the 1800s. While some prints dealt with serious subject matters, others, similar to the example Watanabe is holding, were cut out to use as puppets.
When ukiyo-e prints made their way overseas in the late-19th century as wrapping for exported ceramics, Westerners were awestruck by the exotic designs.
European impressionists Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and American modernist Frank Lloyd Wright praised the technical sophistication and vivid colors, as well as ukiyo-e’s intrinsic meanings.
Japanese people alive during the height of ukiyo-e popularity from 1604 to 1868 treasured images of beautiful women, samurai, kabuki actors and romantic views of famous places.
Many of these woodblock prints, however, aren’t just pleasant to the eye. They are political, with hidden meanings, and portrayed major historical events to those eager to know what was happening in society.
West Vancouver Museum’s is showcasing dozens of ukiyo-e prints at Ukiyoe Spectacular, which runs from Jan. 10 to March 22.
“The general public could now buy these prints. While the wealthy could commission a painting, these were available to anyone,” says assistant curator Kiriko Watanabe, who travelled to Japan to gather the prints. She is working closely with Shinichi Inagaki, a ukiyo-e print collector and scholar from Tokyo.
During the 1800s, says Watanabe, the newly affordable prints meant messages could be easily passed through Japan, much like a newspaper does today.