Opening the West to Japanese prints

Feb. 20, 2014 @ 10:16 AM

“Remnants of the Floating World:  Japanese Art from the Permanent Collection,” Gregg Museum of Art & Design, North Carolina State University Chancellor’s Residence, Raleigh, through May 23. (The house is open Monday-Friday from  9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
by appointment. Call 919-513-7244 for a time.)

In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Edo Harbor and demanded that the Japanese open their gates to the West and they did. There are many explanations why the Shoguns opened up trade to this American when they had closed their country to foreign influence for more than 200 years. The history of Japan at this moment in time is beyond the scope of this column, but the results of this incident, especially those that affected Western art, reached halfway around the world and were a key influence in the development of modern art. 
The West wanted Japanese tea, silks, parasols, lacquers and ceramics, and when they arrived on French soil, they were packed in old woodcut prints wadded up as packing material. These pictures found their way into the hands of French artists who were complaining about the art of the academy; it was tired, dry, lackluster. Here were images of ordinary people, actors, street vendors, prostitutes realized without perspective and shadows. They were also composed with a series of flat areas outlined in bold black and were cropped in strange and new ways; color was bright with varied patterns. This art plus photography, which had just been invented, set off a new age of art that included Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Expressionism. The prints were very popular and widely collected; Van Gogh, Degas, Mary Cassatt, Monet and Manet, among others, owned dozens and framed many for the walls of their houses.
The opening of Japanese markets began a fad in things Japanese; it invaded the West and was called Japonisme. The performing arts were affected: Think Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” and Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” as well as the visual arts. For this show, the staff at the Gregg has searched through the storage vaults and brought out a number of Japanese treasures, especially textiles, lacquer ware and ceramics, but the stars are the prints like those used to pack those early goods.
The images are the “ukiyo-e,” the floating world. The term came about in the 17th century when a large middle class developed in Japan. Basically locked away from the outside world, these men with money spent it on various amusements including theater, fashion and houses of prostitution. The situation was so bad the shoguns decided to separate these districts by gates and moats. It was a fleeting world of pleasure at least as long as the money held out and was chronicled in popular literature and recorded visually by artists of the school of “ukiyo-e.”
All the scenes in the exhibition are original prints by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), one of the most famous of all the artists doing this work. The theater scenes are of familiar kabuki moments. Kabuki is a 17th century art form much like American burlesque. As it developed, the women actors were replaced by men (a government decree to protect the women from the male audience). The stories were complex with elaborate costuming and unique acting techniques. For example, in the “Dueling Scene,” ca. 1852, two samurai have discarded their hats and prepare to fight probably over the mutual love-interest portrayed by the female impersonator crouching between them.  According to Roger Manley, director of the Gregg, such scenes would be as familiar to the audience as a “High-Noon” showdown. Other elements in the picture are the cherry blossoms which symbolize the transience of life. The actor who is the obvious winner in this fight takes a typical kabuki stance showing great agitation or anger when he takes a dramatic pose and crosses his eyes.
Or another “Unidentified Scene,” ca. 1850, focuses on a samurai swordfight where one man is about to get the better of the other except a woman is trying to restrain him.  Manley suggests this is perhaps a woman trying to protect her lover. Kabuki lasted all day and the plots were familiar to the audience who only stopped socializing when a particularly favorite scene was about to unfold.
The exhibition is at the historic Chancellor’s House on Hillsborough Street which is the promised home for the Gregg Museum. Manley said there were quite a few departments vying for the house but Chancellor William “Randy” Woodson and his wife are big promoters of the arts and with their support the Gregg will get the Hillsborough site.  With the Woodsons settled into their new home on the Centennial Campus, fundraising to turn the 1927 house into a beautiful site for the Gregg is going on in earnest. In the last few years sums for museums have mounted into the mega-millions. Duke’s Nasher came it at $24 million with Rafael Vignoly as architect. The N.C. Museum of Art with Thomas Phifer and Partners as architects cost in the neighborhood of $75 million, so the modest sum of $8 million to upfit the old house and add a wing with 17,000 square feet should be easy. The architect is Philip Freelon of Durham, who is also the architect of record for the National Museum of African American History and Culture which will be on the Washington, D.C., Mall. 
The Gregg with its landmark collection of textiles, ceramics and outsider art has been hidden inside N.C. State’s campus in the Talley Student Center since the 1990s. If you found the building, you could not find a parking space. The new site backs up to Pullen Park and will face out on Hillsborough Street and the Raleigh community. For the present, the Gregg is a museum without walls, mounting exhibitions all over campus and at outside Raleigh venues. (Meredith College is currently co-hosting, with the Gregg, a show of Phyllis Galembo’s photographs of West African ceremonial costumes.) The scheduled opening of the new location is 2014 and it cannot come too soon.  

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.