Prints vibrantly depict Japan's early modern wars


The art of war is being waged at the Walters Art Gallery these days in the exhibit "In Battle's Light: Woodblock Prints of Japan's Early Modern Wars."

Organized by the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, this out of the ordinary show focuses on Japanese prints made to celebrate that country's triumphs in the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) wars.

Although these conflicts with, respectively, China and Russia were duly noted at the time as important steps in Japan's militaristic entry into the modern world, nowadays precious few Americans have any awareness of them. This point was laughably brought home to me as I watched two visitors to the show hurriedly walk through it, with one leaning in to inform the other: "These are old Civil War pictures."

Not by a long shot! Actually, the wars in question were an expansionist expression of Meiji era Japan, when that country adopted Western customs including the founding of overseas colonies.

Looking at these woodblock prints today, you'll notice how they bring together traditional Japanese design motifs with modern Western weaponry and uniforms. They also sometimes attempt, with mixed success, to emulate Western artistic concepts of spatial perspective.

The Japanese public had an insatiable appetite for such propagandistic images showing how the samurai spirit was dressed up in new garb at the turn of the 20th century. Newspaper correspondents on the front helped provide the raw accounts that artists back in Japan then idealized into prints that spoke to the emotion of victory more than to the actual logistics of battle. That's surely why these woodblock prints remained popular in an age of photography, and, indeed, were sometimes based on photographs. Their heightened colors and emotions could not have been conveyed in black-and-white photography.

These prints generally have a triptych format, which proves effective for illustrating the diagonal movement of a battle across the sheet of paper. Such expansiveness also has its advantages in rendering atmospheric effects. In particular, the convincing depictions of heavy snowstorms are reminders that these military campaigns took many Japanese troops further north than they'd ever been before.

One of the most strikingly atmospheric of the prints is Adachi Ginko's "Artillery Captain Nezu and First Lieutenant Iida" (1894), in which a small boat carries those officers between ship and shore. The driving rain and angry wave caps are highly stylized and yet never static.

For all the color often found in these prints, a number of them are actually characterized by a muted range of colors in which vibrant color is more of an occasional dramatic accent. Japan's vibrantly red flag representing the rising sun, for instance, is sometimes highlighted in the foreground of a print to such an extent that it is the focus of attention more than a battle obscured in the cannon smoke-filled background.

"In Battle's Light: Woodblock Prints of Japan's Early Modern Wars" remains at the Walters Art Gallery through May 26. For information, call 547-9000.

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