Friday, 28 August 2009

Images of Beauty and Violence.

One art exhibition that I saw on my first visit to Amsterdam in 1992 has always stayed with me. My friend and I did all the city sights, including the Van Gogh museum. I couldn't say that the Van Goghs stirred up any great art awakening within me. But there was a secondary exhibition in the museum and what I saw there blew me away.

It was called Beauty and Violence and was a collection of antique prints by Japanese printmaker Yoshitoshi who was "the last great master - and one of the great innovative and creative geniuses - of the Japanese woodblock print, Ukiyo-e." He lived from 1839 to 1892, producing art in a highly transitional period when Japan was making huge leaps both socially and culturally. The nation was transforming from being a highly traditional and feudal society, to one that became unified under one emperor, the warlords of old being stripped of their power. Japan was also rapidly beginning to embrace new artistic and technological ideas from the West, including previously unknown techniques of mass production. Yoshitoshi devoted himself to preserving the old ways and craftmanship of his art, he was the last of his kind.

I didn't know any of Yoshitoshi's history. For me it was the highly charged scenes that he depicted and the shocking nature of some images, that really affected me. He had produced whole series' of themed works, one of which was called "100 Aspects of the Moon." In each print, picturing a wide range of characters and situations, the moon was always to be seen.

A warrior creeps through the woods under a full moon, perhaps stalking his enemy.

A bold young princess confronts and banishes a ghost who is haunting the Emperor.

On treacherous seas a sailor attempts to pacify warrior ghosts and calm the storm.

A mysterious girl appears to a prince.

And in a lonely house on an otherwise uninhabited moor an old hag prepares to kill a heavily pregnant woman.

Another series of prints was entitled "New Forms of Thirty Six Ghosts."

The ghost of a young woman, accused of stealing a dish and thrown into a well as punishment.

A woman sitting under a waterfall, praying - offering her life for release of her master.

Yoshitoshi's work made a big impact on me. I never forgot that amazing collection and I never forgot how powerful an experience seeing his art was, perhaps the first time art had really reached out to me and shook me up.

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