Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Salad Days: Yokohama and A Different Floating World

After many valiant harumpfings about visiting the Yokohama print exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I finally made the 5 minute trek to enjoy some great prints.  After the ports of Japan were pried open to the west in 1859, cultural entanglements including misunderstandings and  misinformation along with the flow of goods and money poured and flowed like the sailors' libations that had just arrived in town.   Originally intended to be viewed by Japanese people to learn and vicariously experience foreigners some of the specifics of the cultures depicted were lost in translation due to the hurry meet the demand for the prints.   Russian sailors next to Italian flags in front of French buildings is just one example.   Seeing how the artists were coping with depicting the new textiles and animals coming into the island was very consoling as I struggle with painting and other works from time to time.  These guys who were making these prints were masters of their trade and its always reassuring that no matter how long one works at their trade new things and changes will bring challenges.  Unfortunately the museum decided not to print a book of the work so I've tried to cull some images that are close to what they have.*  

Americans in front of a steamship 
Beyond the strange images of Europeans watching Pygmies dance on tables I was attracted to the depictions of the hustle and bustle of the "new" daily life in the port.   How crowded it seemed from the pictures, how exotic "we" seemed.  Some of the patterns resulting from depictions of the "new" styles of dress undulates like fungal architecture.  Only a handful of nations were allowed to legally trade with the Japanese empire but there were still depictions of people there that were not represented by the treaty of trade.  There was a loophole of sponsorship.  It didn't seem to matter what type of vocation the sponsor had as long as they were part of the party with papers from their government.  Yokohama must truly be the first international city, even if the foreigners were quarantined off behind fences in their own part of the city.  I'm sure at times westerners were depicted with some sense of humor and with varying degrees of subtlety.  With out second guessing myself too much about the intentions of the artists of these specific portraits in the group I'd wager they were carried out with a little mirth mixed with boot shining.  In the works there are depicted the varied subjects, for example,  a "An American Merchant Greatly Please with the Miniature Cherry Tree He Ordered" and behind him/to the side of him is a bust portrait of his wife with a head four times the size of his.  I can imagine her going to have the work commissioned, running into the problem of the receiver unable to read Japanese and the artist unable to write in English.  Then solving this by the inclusion of their purchasers portrait and it must be big and important, because they must be reminded of who has given them this thing.  Stupid fat heads.  But that's all conjecture and Hollywood prejudice.  Maybe.  Here is a print of John James Audubon discovering that the drawings and watercolors he has made have been eaten by rats.  Seriously.   

It was nice to see and be introduced to these prints as so many that I've come across are of "The Floating World": Japan's aristocracy and pleasure gardens.   If you are interested in the floating worlds and are in Philadelphia this weekend you should stop by the banks of the Schuylkyll River to view and interact with "Light Drift".  Parker Lee of Parker Lee fame, has been in town working to install these works for Meejin Yoon of Boston so stop by and support their efforts to put some magic in your fall evenings.  I bet you it will be better than an Applebee's Magician Night.  Believe me no strings are attached, its free.  More info can be found HERE.  Time to get back to sailboats. . .

*After writing this and not wanting to take the effort to rearrange things once again HERE is a link to all 90 images in the exhibition on the Philadelphia Museum of Arts website.   I guess I'll have to print my own book now, huh?  Only $150 if you want a color print from the museum and a 4 week wait.

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