Modern Landscapes, Modern Beauties:
The Woodblock Prints of Ito Shinsui (1898-1972)
In conjunction with New York's March 2002 Asia Week, Scholten Japanese Art launches an exhibition of the modern print artist Ito Shinsui entitled Modern Landscapes, Modern Beauties: The Woodblock Prints of Ito Shinsui (1898-1972). This comprehensive show spans the entire career of this quintessential shin-hanga (lit. 'new prints') artist, who achieved great success in the United States during his own lifetime as the result of two landmark exhibitions dedicated to shin-hanga artists held in 1930 and 1936.
Shin-hanga is the term given to a genre of prints made in the twentieth century that utilized the traditional Japanese printmaking system, but in an updated, 'new' style. In the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) eras, a period of increasing openness toward foreign ideas and the growing industrialization of Japan, many shin-hanga artists such as Shinsui returned nostalgically to the more traditional aspects of Japan. These artists aimed to emulate the high quality of traditional ukiyo-e, the classic woodblock prints of the floating world. A landscape print entitled Ukimido Temple, Katada (1917) from the series Eight Views of Omi illustrates the success Shinsui achieved in his attempt to revitalize the ukiyo-e genre. In this print, Shinsui depicts a floating pavilion that is constructed over the surface of a lake, its roof blanketed in snow.
While Shinsui excelled at landscape prints, a number of which can be viewed at Scholten, he became most well known as a successful and prolific creator of bijin-ga (lit. 'beautiful women prints'). Though Shinsui worked to create idealized images of a traditional Japan, he was also influenced by a growing awareness of Western art. Many of his prints incorporate Western theories of perspective, which combine with the two-dimensional Japanese graphic sense to create a striking fusion between the two traditions. European-style depiction of the female nude was also adopted by Shinsui, as can be seen in the print Bathing in Early Summer (1922) from the series New Twelve Images of Beauties. The woman's body is depicted in round full lines and she occupies almost the whole space of the picture. The background consists of swirling intersecting circular lines, achieved by a technique called goma-zuri in which the baren (the flat disc used to transfer paint from block to paper) is turned on its side and rubbed lightly in a circular movement. This innovative use of the baren can be seen in many of Shinsui's prints.
Among the genre of bijin prints, an extremely dynamic example is Blizzard (1932). While many of Shinsui's bijin prints may appear a bit static, this print picturing a beautiful woman protecting herself from the snow and wind with an umbrella is alive with energy and movement. The turn of her head coupled with the flowing lines of her kimono combine to create the illusion of a strong winter wind.
One of Shinsui's most striking prints is entitled Eyebrow Pencil (1928). This print was both a critical and commercial success. It differs from Shinsui's typical bijin pictures in many respects. The background is a deep red, accomplished by multiple printings for a saturated color, which contrasts with the whiteness of the woman's skin in an arresting manner. The print is in a vertical format rather than the horizontal of the typical bijin print, and the subject is an actress in the midst of preparation for her role. Rather than an idealized vision of female beauty, we come closer perhaps to a realistic portrayal as we see the actress partially unclothed, her hair pulled back, intent upon applying make up.
Today shin-hanga is perhaps best known for its striking balance between tradition and modernity. As the genre's leading producer of prints depicting beautiful women, Shinsui leaves a legacy of a number of brilliantly designed, beautifully decorated images of twentieth century Japanese women in various guises, often engaged in seasonal pursuits. In the summer, wearing a light cotton yukata she often holds an uchiwa (round flat fan) and participates in such activities as firefly catching or hanging a paper lantern. In winter her yukata changes to a brilliant kimono and she can be found warming herself under the kotatsu (leg warmer) or walking in a snowstorm with an umbrella. Whatever the activity Shinsui's women remain calm and lovely, full of innocence and grace, an homage to a time that perhaps never existed.
The exhibition opens March 20th and continues through April 20th. Scholten Japanese Art is open Tuesday through Saturday 11am to 5pm, by appointment. To schedule an appointment please call 212.585.0474.