Thursday, Jan. 19 marked the first installation of the student-curated series, “Dreams of the Floating World: 15 Views of Tokugawa Japan.” “When I first arrived at Lawrence, Wriston Gallery Director Beth Zinsli hosted an open house,” Assistant Professor of History Brigid Vance explained. “I was impressed with the Japanese woodblock prints and decided to center my Early Modern Japan course around [them].” In mapping out readings and research focused around the Edo period and Tokugawa history, Vance hoped that her course would be one way to showcase the incredible art collection and resources at Lawrence for better understanding East Asian history and culture. In addition, she stated, “I wanted the students to take ownership of that understanding […] I hoped that the hands-on experience would make the printmaking process come alive for all of us.”
From working in the science labs, collaborating with other faculty and staff and having expert knowledge and perspectives of Japanese art history and prints from Assistant Professor of Art History Nancy Lin, Vance’s history class will take part of the lunchtime Art @ Noon tours. Each week three different students will showcase the different Japanese woodblock prints they chose in Leech Gallery. The first tour was led by sophomores Kieran Laursen and Elliot Brunk and senior Hawkens Bory-Baar.
“[We] worked as collaboratively as we could have,” Laursen mentioned, “connect[ing] with Wriston and the science lab.” Each student selected two prints to analyze and research for the exhibition. Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Art Benjamin Rinehart, Vance detailed how students “designed, carved and printed their own woodblock prints with Prussian blue pigment.” Experimenting with dyes in the chemistry lab proved to be a very “laborious process,” Laursen stated, but proved to be a very rewarding experience as well. Laursen’s two prints focused on nature scenes. As a symbol of beauty and spring, cherry blossoms and gardens were an integral part of Japanese society and people would travel to view the exquisite sites. Not only do they represent natural beauty, but the flowering of the cherry trees marks the beginning of spring and new beginnings. Festivals and celebrations are held during this season, and tourists from all over the world come to Japan to view the cherry trees.
Brunk’s two prints incorporated themes of the Samurai warrior and portraiture. One of the two major schools of print making during this period focused on masculinity and the “loud, brash warrior and idealized Samurai” Brunk explained. The prints recapture the greatness of this history even though at the time the warrior class was in decline. Brunk detailed the “brightness to [the warrior’s] bravery” mentioning one print in particular which portrays a fearless Samurai on his horse with the Japanese city view behind him. The idealized form of the warrior Samurai class is greatly depicted in these prints of the Edo period, showing them with full costume and weaponry as defenders of the city. However, as Brunk pointed out, prints at this time were being widely produced and accessible to all levels of society, so the portraitures were more “romantic” and “dynamic” views of the falling militant nobility class.
The third wall in the gallery depicted prints of civilization and the everyday lives of citizens, showing both the peasant and noble Samurai classes. The delicate carvings and intricate details of the prints, Bory-Baar explained, requires a long process, but these prints are able to be mass-produced for popular media, such as postcards. Apart from the idealized and romantic views of the cherry blossoms and warriors, Bory-Baar mentioned the prints as showing a “sober image of [the] city” and how they are “normal” and “grounded” in contrast to the picturesque gardens and valiant Samurai. In one of the prints, a man is shown with a sword barely visible from behind his robes. The sword, a symbol of the warrior rank, Bory-Baar detailed, shows the “dichotomous views” of the Samurai class within everyday civic life, suggesting the 18th century legend of leaderless Samurai avenging the death of their lord.
Scenes of Tokugawa, the last feudal Japanese military government, is depicted from the prints of “Dreams of the Floating World: 15 Views of Tokugawa Japan” to showcase the urban movement within Edo (now Tokyo) and the rise of popular culture spreading throughout Japan. Vance stated that “The floating world, [or] ukiyo, evoked an imagined world of illusory beauty and transgression,” and that every student has a different meaning for the title of the exhibit and the prints that they chose.
“Dreams of the Floating World: 15 Views of Tokugawa Japan” will be open in Leech Gallery until March 12.