At a time when society was dramatically transitioning and skyscrapers were rising from the ground as great signals of modernity, the Grecian structure of the Lady Lever Art Gallery was built in the small town of Bebington. Designed in the classical style, complete with pillars and dome, it stands out like a last bastion of Edwardian opulence, just across the river from post-industrial Liverpool.
Currently housed inside the walls of the building there is a much more progressive response to the changing world at the end of the 2nd millennium. The gallery is currently showing an exhibition of 19th century Japanese prints depicting the thriving, chaotic city of Edo, later knows as Tokyo. The 50 prints on show create a portal through time and space, through which the viewer can gain a glimpse of the fantastical world of Edo and the charismatic characters that inhabit it.
The way the gallery is set out, with many entryways to various rooms, makes it so that there is no definitive beginning to the exhibition. I find myself standing at a triptych of a battle scene. It is a tumultuous image with a lot going on; a fleeing army, a huge red snake of smoke spanning the middle and right of the panels, the frosty triangle of Mount Fuji in the background. Amongst all this are the first signs of how playful these prints are. This one is a slight anomaly, as the majority of the pictures in the exhibition are of staples of Japanese entertainment such as sumo wrestling and Kabuki theatre, or whimsical portrayals of new and exotic inventions like the locomotive or the hot air balloon. But even in this scene of war the artist adds an element of folly, as the army is frightened by a scattering of geese, confusing the flutter of wings for an enemy invasion.
Most of the prints focus on individuals significant to the popular culture of the time. Figures, such as sumo wrestlers and samurai, were often codified within the culture through the dominant popular art form of Kabuki theatre. Kabuki quickly became one of the main inspirations for Japanese art. Western art of around the same time period was also interested in depicting theatre, most notably the plays of William Shakespeare. The significant difference between depictions of western theatre and Kabuki, is that the western artists tended to focus on the story or the character of the play, whereas these prints are almost exclusively centred on the actors playing the roles. Around 80% of all Japanese woodblock prints are portraits of actors, celebrities of great importance to the culture. Over a century before Andy Warhol printed his iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Japanese artists were creating and mass-producing cheap prints of their own superstars, contributing to the universality of art.
Kabuki became heavily censored due to its controversial nature, leading to many actors being imprisoned. Laws were put in place to prevent artists from depicting named actors in their work. This lead to artists creating imagined scenes of actors. One of these pieces is Actors on a Bridge in Edo by Utagawa Kunisada. This is one of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition, another triptych featuring four characters standing underneath umbrellas in a snowy winter scene. There is a certain realism to this piece that is missing in many of the others, with a slew of snowflakes falling from the sky, creating the feeling of motion and immersing the viewer in the curious scene. Two women look on from either side of the triptych as a man seems as if he is cowering behind his partner in the centre, a mixture of comedy and drama that is typical of many of the prints. There is a stark contrast between the plain white faces and the multicoloured, frilled and flowing robes, drawing the eye away from the indiscernible expressions of the characters to the lavish patterns of the garments.
I enter the last room of the exhibition, passing by an offbeat take on eroticism in which a woman reads an erotic book for some extra stimulation as her eager partner pleasures her with some kind of sexual toy. It is surprisingly, delightfully explicit. Japanese erotic art fell into its own genre, known as Shunga (picture of spring). There was a high demand for pictures like these, and the mischievous yet joyful eyes of the characters tell of the schism between societal and governmental attitudes towards sex, though, as the anatomical detail of this print shows, restrictions were nowhere near as stringent as they were in the puritanical west.
I come to two prints featured side by side, creating a stark contrast between one another. The first is a scene of the city from a distance, swathes of bodies thronging over a bridge, jostling for a spot to see an oncoming firework display. The many bobbing heads pressed together create a micromosaic affect, evoking the mad bustle of the city of a million people. It gives a powerful sense of excitement and anticipation. There are many pieces in the collection with distant perspectives, and they all provide a unique view of the city, a battle between two and three dimensionality, almost like the look of a vintage video game. Directly to the right of this print there is possibly the one scene of real tranquillity in the exhibition, a landscape of snowy Mount Fuji. This piece is perhaps what comes to mind when most people think of Japanese art. It is a lovely landscape, and the soothing pale of the sky is mesmerising. But the juxtaposition between this piece, the piece to the left of it, and all the other pieces in the exhibition, shows how versatile and wide ranging Japanese art can be, and perhaps makes you think about it in a completely different way.
There are various quotes relating to Japanese art dotted around the exhibition, and as I am walking back to Bebington train station one in particular rings true:
“Steep yourself in the work of some Japanese artists and then go some afternoon and sit in the park or stroll down Piccadilly and if you cannot see a Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.” – Oscar Wilde
All images from the collection of Frank Milner.