Recently, friend of the Free Press and valued volunteer, Jane Coleman, surprised a group of Free Press reporters with a field trip to the Japanese wood block exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art. The group of us—including Diamond, Dija, James, Christy, Felicia, Ruthanne, and our editors Taylor and Aarushi—met at the South Towne newsroom where Jane gave us a briefing. Jane explained that Dr. Gene Phillips, professor of Japanese Art, had generously agreed to take us into the “floating world.” He would be acting as a docent, or a volunteer guide, for us. Excited, we grabbed our freshly sharpened pencils, notepads, and camera. We piled into two cars and crossed the isthmus.
When we arrived at the Chazen Museum of Art, the first thing we noticed was the glass windows and the skeleton sculpture outside. There, we met Shoko Miyagi, another Free Press volunteer, and Dr. Gene Phillips, in the flesh. Dr. Phillips insisted we call him Gene.
Walking into the exhibit, the dim lights and cold air took us by surprise. Dr. Phillips explained why the environment resembled a haunted house. Because the water-based ink on the wood block came from plants or vegetables, he explained, the pigment changes over time with exposure to light. Therefore, it was best not to use a camera flash or increase the light and speed up the fading process. Because of this, prints are stored at low light and rotated out every 10-15 years, or so, to avoid too much light exposure. We nodded in unison as we moved along to the next part of the exhibit.
Gene explained that each print was created first by carving an image out of wood, and then overlaying that image with ink. Every single image we saw was actually a print of that design on paper. With such intricate patterns, this was a little hard to believe! The great thing about prints is that, unlike paintings, many thousands of copies can be made—making the business very lucrative. This exhibit featured Japanese block prints donated by Edward Burr Van Vleck, a UW-Madison mathematics professor, whose collection is one of the largest in the world, who notably purchased 4,000 prints that had previously been owned by famous Wisconsin architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
While walking through the exhibit, we were dazzled by the magnificent colors, clean lines on landscapes, and the depictions of myth and fantasy spread between different panels of wood block, like comic strips. The woodblock prints Ukiyo-e --meaning “pictures of the floating world”— depicted beautiful landscapes, scenes from the Kabuki theater, high-class courtesans, and everyday city life from the Edo time period (1603-1868). The floating world was meant to express the impermanence of life. During this time period, Japan was ruled by shoguns at Edo, and virtually isolated from the rest of the world.
Despite the dreamy side of Ukiyo-e, the exhibit also had its more macabre, eerie or dark, elements. There were also a few pieces that marked the influence of Western civilization. By the late 19th century, Japan had interacted with the majority of Europe, and the interactions resulted in the gaining of the color Prussian blue, found in many works during that time period. It's really interesting to see the changes in society through the art work as the subjects and style of the work changed along with Japanese culture, while the design and media remained similar.
The journey to the “floating world” at the Chazen Museum of Art was a fun, memorable experience. We had the opportunity to meet a professor who gave us valuable information about Japanese art and culture while we toured the decades and saw the magnificent pieces of art. As we left, we admired the more modern works, some of them with even more western elements, the late 20th century. We would encourage anyone and everyone to attend this free exhibit at the Chazen Museum, which will continue through August 14th. We couldn’t get the images of the floating world out of our heads as we chatted about the exhibit on the way home, while zooming along the beltline. The sky was almost a Prussian blue.