Words and photos by Farrah Skeiky
Embarrassment and anxiety are not feelings typically associated with art exhibits timed with the nation’s capitol’s Cherry Blossom Festival– but that’s not what the Sackler Gallery is after in the case of Kiyochika: Master of the Night. Here, you won’t find the iconic (or rather stereotypical) makings of implied ideas of Japanese art. There are no lavish or luxurious scenes of shogun-era wealth and tradition, nor are the works littered with those ubiquitous pink flowers. In fact, this exhibit exceeds the expectation of any that might be described as a study of light and dark. Describing this as such would be a severe disservice.
Self-taught artist Kobayashi Kiyochika left Edo out of self-imposed exile and returned after the city’s transformation into Tokyo was already underway. After wars, fires and other natural disasters, a “new city” was what Japan needed, and Tokyo sought to follow the West’s example, with Paris as the era’s bastion of modernization. Like any city in transition, the old world was merging with the new, and Kiyochika’s honest fashion portrayed these transitions as uncomfortable and imposing. Suddenly, materials foreign to Japan, like brick, were being used to build alongside traditional structures of native materials like paper and wood. The city bridged a new relationship with fire as an element of control was introduced and enforced. Quiet and subtle elements of Westernization were slipping into every aspect of life.
This exhibit is masterfully arranged according to these shifts. There’s a set of prints that forms Bricktown, another that illustrates a new variety of nightlife, and most curiously, one simply entitled “Spectacles and Spectatorship.” This is where the elements of embarrassment and anxiety take hold: in this new time of “forward-thinking” and modernization, the people of Japan become spectators in their own lives. In nearly every print of this series of 93, the figures depicted are just that- figures with indistinguishable features, and the landscape is what is illuminated, either by the light of dawn or dusk or the new artificial lighting of the night. None of these figures are talking to each other or interacting at all. Instead they are observing their new world together, still detached.
Embarrassment and anxiety are not exaggerated reactions. Kiyochika’s Japan reveals the alienation and disengagement that came with modernized Tokyo, but we may as well be staring at ourselves. Instead of marveling at new building materials or pigmented lights, we’re all starting at the same thing by way of screens, sometimes while standing next to each other. Sometimes we’re taking photos or texting or tweeting or posting about the things we’re doing together, but when we become spectators, we’re no longer actually doing them together. Maybe Kiyochika predicted this to some extent, or maybe his works were an existential outcry in a society that was leaving him behind. In the two-print section Turning Back from the Edge, Kiyochika abandons his printmaking style and does what his sponsors would rather see: a traditional Japanese aesthetic translated to print. Existentialism probably didn’t pay the bills in 1881, either.
Perhaps the best part of this exhibit is the smart layout of the room– not just the organization of the prints. In the center of the second hall, there’s a large block with a map of the city of Tokyo, and each print can be geographically located. But even better than that are sheer screens of photographs of this very time. They depict everything from traditional Japanese architecture flanked by telephone poles, to women in kimonos walking alongside businessmen in suits in the streets. Since the screens are sheer, you can see other museum visitors looking at the prints, and they look just like Kiyochika’s figures: shaded, and looking together in silence.