Japanese woodblock prints produced between 1870 and 1930 reflect a period of immense change as Japan opened to the Western world and urban life transformed in response to technological advances. In investigating this period during my summer internship at the Freer|Sackler, one woodblock print artist of the era, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), drew my interest for his contemplative attention to nightscapes, which differed from the work of both his predecessors and contemporaries. He was the subject of the 2014 Freer|Sackler exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night—a fitting title. Kiyochika’s intricate use of gradated shadow, often punctuated with sources of illumination, in addition to his diversity in subject matter, from moonlit views to Japanese naval battles, makes him a fascinating artist to study.
After consulting with Jim Ulak, the Freer|Sackler’s senior curator of Japanese art, I decided to focus my summer curatorial research project around Kiyochika and his place within printmaking toward the end of the nineteenth century, a period when the old city of Edo became the rapidly modernizing city of Tokyo. My search began with the Open F|S collections and The Museum System (TMS) database, which allowed me to page through some four thousand images online.
Kiyochika came from a family of bureaucrats living under the Tokugawa shogunate, the final feudal Japanese military government that had remained in power since the early seventeenth century. His development as a woodblock print artist coincided with political upheaval of the era. Following the opening of Japan to Western influence by US Commodore Matthew Perry and the eventual overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kiyochika retreated with the shogun from Edo to Shizuoka and began a self-imposed exile.
While Kiyochika established himself in Shizuoka, the capital city of Edo entered a period of dramatic technological change. In addition to the expansion of telegraph wires, the development of a railway system and wheeled vehicles such as the horse-drawn carriage rapidly altered the landscape that Kiyochika had left behind.
When the artist returned to Tokyo in 1874 after his six-year exile, the city’s once-dark buildings and streets were increasingly illuminated by gas-fueled lights. With the realm of the nightscape now opened to further exploration and experimentation with light and shadow, Kiyochika began in 1876 to produce a series of ninety-three woodblock prints known as Famous Places of Tokyo.
While Kiyochika’s series title draws inspiration from his predecessor Andō Hiroshige’s widely popular series 100 Famous Views of Edo, both artists present markedly different impressions of the landscape of Tokyo. And though Hiroshige’s color palette falls more in line with that of Kiyochika’s contemporaries, who often used the bright light of the day to glorify technological advances, Kiyochika’s attention to night and shadow sought to invert the “invasive” attributes of the new Tokyo. He instead increasingly explored the interplay of technological advances and a growing population in an ever-changing arena of solitude.
Devoting twenty-five of his ninety-three prints to nightscapes alone, Kiyochika used the recently transformed Japanese landscape against itself, examining the shadows rather than bright city lights that his contemporaries continued to depict.
To further research Kiyochika’s attention to light and shadow, I consulted the Freer|Sackler’s extensive TMS database and research gathered for a past Freer|Sackler exhibition titled Dream Worlds: Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Robert O. Muller Collection. From these sources, I found that Kiyochika often employed a number of print techniques to visually structure his nightscapes and experiment with sources of light.
As displayed in the print above, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika was able to create subtle gradations in the night sky by using the bokashi technique. Rather than applying only one ink value to the entire woodblock surface, Kiyochika instead created a variety of shades by adding ink in a gradient to a dampened block. The variety of dark hues created from this technique further attest to Kiyochika’s intricate exploration of nightscapes and the atmospheric impact of variations in light and shadow.
While using the bokashi technique, Kiyochika showed particular attentiveness to rendering the human form in relation to the rapidly transforming environment. As seen within Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika outlined and silhouetted figures against the background as they silently illuminate their respective paths. The placement of figures near the lighthouse adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine heightens the solemn undercurrent of the print as a depiction of a memorial to Japanese soldiers who had died in service of the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Created using Western techniques, the lighthouse, a physical extension of the Yasukuni Shrine, also subtly commemorates the technological and social changes that initially caused Kiyochika’s own exile and eventual attraction to the woodblock print medium. Cast within an evocatively altered environment and caught between reconciling the past with the present, human figures within the print are unified in form yet isolated in position, quietly populating the scene in which they are placed. In this way, human figures appear as poignant actors as they too are quickly subsumed by the enveloping night sky of the city. This intricate reimagination of familiar Japanese landmarks in uniquely somber contexts distinguishes the work of Kiyochika as a captivating perspective of life in the shadows.
My exploration of Kiyochika’s use of light and shadow began simply with an initial search on Open F|S. For art history researchers who are interested in the Freer|Sackler collection but are unsure of where to start, Open F|S provides a wealth of readily accessible information. I hope that my process of discovering Kiyochika serves as a template for learning by exploring, even from the shadows.