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Music in the Time of Kiyochika

Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

“Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

What would it have been like to attend a piano recital in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), the period when the city called Edo ceased to exist and was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers? It was a time of modernization that featured the introduction of gaslights, steamships, railroads, brick buildings, and telegraph lines. It was also the time when self-trained artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) captured the rapidly changing city in the woodblock prints on view in Kiyochika: Master of the Night.

During the late 1800s, Western music was embraced with enthusiasm in Japan. (The most popular composer in Japan at the time was Beethoven; he remains so to this day.) With that in mind, Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel presented a program in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium that featured Western composers popular in Japan during Kiyochika’s lifetime. The pianist brought out deeper meaning and darker tones in the music, similar to what Kiyochika accomplished in his work.

The first half of the program, played with a combination of passion and precision, featured Beethoven’s “Bagatelles” and “Moonlight Sonata,” followed by Liszt’s “Pensée des Morts.” The pianist ended the first half of the program with “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu” (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell) by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992). Messiaen was born too late to fit neatly into the program, but his work echoes Liszt’s, which itself has ties to Beethoven’s famed sonata. After the intermission, Vonsattel played Schumann’s “Arabeske in C Major, op. 18″ and Books I and II of Debussy’s “Images.” This is where Vonsattel’s playing was marked with poetry and an ethereal air. The themes introduced in the first half—bells, water, and moonlight—reverberated with masterful panache.

You could close your eyes and imagine that you were back in Kiyochika’s Japan, listening to music in a concert hall that was illuminated by gaslight. When viewing the prints in Master of the Night (which often include images of light on water), however, we recommend you keep your eyes wide open.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night remains on view in the Sackler Gallery through July 27, 2014.

#kiyochika

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Fireworks!

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, S2003.8.1195

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Robert O. Muller Collection; S2003.8.1195

Kobayashi Kiyochika is known for his night scenes in much the same way that James McNeill Whistler is renowned for his Nocturnes. Both men were poets of the night, and will be featured in related exhibitions at the Freer|Sackler in 2014.

In Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ryōgoku, two boats converge for Kawabiraki, a fireworks display held in mid-July to open the river to summer pleasure boats. In earlier times, fireworks had been used as part of a purification ritual to ward off summer illness. By Kiyochika’s time, the display had lost that earlier meaning and was more of a spectacle.

Kiyochika is not the first artist to depict this scene, but his novel use of light to illuminate the foreground adds a cinematic touch to the print. The members of both boating parties—traveling in a palace boat (yakatabune) on the right and a roof boat (yanebune) at left—cast silhouettes that make the revelers look as if they were sailing across a movie screen.

Happy July 4 from the Freer|Sackler!

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Fireworks Freer|Sackler Style

Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, 1881, Kobayashi Kiyochika, woodblock print, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.1197

The Freer|Sackler has a number of works in its collections portraying fireworks, including this one by Kobayashi Kiyochika, a Japanese artist who lived from 1847-1915. The central figure here, who appears to be a young boy watching from a high vantage point, reminds me a little of Hokusai’s painting Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, painted in 1839, eight years before Kiyochika was born.

“Images of fireworks were a standard element in a pre-modern printmaker’s repertoire,” says James T. Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at Freer|Sackler. “In that sense, Kiyochika fulfills his audience’s expectations for traditional subject matter. He extends the boundaries of that tradition, however, by drawing the viewer into the same intimate perspective experienced by the spectators crowded on the periphery of the image.

“Moreover, Kiyochika pushes the dark tonalities of the print to an extreme that would not have been found in earlier nineteenth-century designs. Viewers look out over Shinobazu Pond toward Benten Shrine, which sits on a small island on a peninsula in Ueno Park, Tokyo.”

No matter where you choose to celebrate, Happy Fourth of July!

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