CMOA shows intricate prints

Japan Is the Key... encourages museum visitors to write haikus inspired by the exhibit. (credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor) Japan Is the Key... encourages museum visitors to write haikus inspired by the exhibit. (credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor)

Tucked away in a side gallery on the second floor, Japan Is the Key… is a small and seemingly nondescript new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibit, which opened last Saturday, features Japanese color woodblock prints, watercolors, and ivory figurines made in the first half of the 19th century.

Although the exhibit is fairly small — filling only three small rooms — it probably could have been condensed further. The exhibit is largely homogenous, mostly because nearly all of the works are from the same time period and use the same medium. Oftentimes, the walls are lined with a long series of works by the same artist. Aside from the occasional watercolor and the small ivory collection in centrally placed display cases, the works almost exclusively consist of color woodblock prints. Even the color palette of pale reds and sea blues is very similar from print to print.

The exception is a striking series of taller, narrower prints by Torii Kiyonaga and Tamagawa Shucho that line the middle room. Looking closer, the subjects of the prints look oddly cut off, like badly cropped Facebook profile pictures. Still, from afar, the sharply vertical shape makes these prints the most visually captivating pieces in the exhibit.

Though the exhibit is not the most eye-catching or diverse overall, there is beauty to be found in these pieces through the technique and level of detail used to create them. Even centuries later, the lines of the prints are crisp and precise, and the colors fade exquisitely and seamlessly across the paper. A particularly striking example of intricate, pristine printmaking is “Night Rain at Oyama” by Utagawa Toyokuni II, which streaks diagonal lines across the page to represent sheets of rain obscuring a view of the mountain.

Within the exhibit, there are two distinct categories: landscapes that provide wide, sweeping views of mountains and lakes, and closer snapshots of human life (usually women). Despite the repetition within these categories — one can only look at so many prints of Mount Fuji — the subject matter is perhaps the most thought-provoking dimension to the exhibit. Considering the time period during which they were made, some of the pieces are surprisingly satirical and suggestive. Kitagawa Utamaro’s “The Four Accomplishments,” for example, is a parody of classical painting style that depicts courtesans in an Edo pleasure house, many of them in playfully suggestive poses.

These kinds of pieces clash with our highly traditional and hierarchical understanding of feudal Japan, and challenge us to reassess our understanding of the role of art in 19th-century Japan. Though on the surface, these prints may look repetitive and bland, a few of them make playful artistic commentary that is easy to overlook.

In this way, Japan Is the Key… requires more patience and willingness to think than many art exhibits. These pieces won’t grab your attention right away; in fact, they may bore you after a while. Japan Is the Key… is not for museum goers who want to breeze through an exhibit; it requires a closer, more careful look and a viewer who is willing to search for the hidden value in a work of art.