Balthus

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[Image: Balthus, Les Enfants Blanchard (1937), oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm
Musée national Picasso-Paris, Donation by the heirs of Picasso, 1973/1978
© Balthus. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau]

The art of Balthus (1908-2001) is hard to place. It is not Surrealist, although it was linked to Surrealism. It is not realism, though it is derived from life. It is allied to tradition but is not traditional. It is not Modernist but could not have existed without Modernism. It is erotic but it is not erotica. To class it as Post-Modern would be completely erroneous. What is its lineage? It is European but – like its chameleon creator – it cannot be placed. The artist was born in France of Polish descent, growing up in France, Germany and Switzerland, later spending many years in Italy before moving to Switzerland with his Japanese wife. To think accurately about this European painter you need to know Japanese art and Persian miniatures; to discuss this friend and associate of Artaud, Giacometti, Picasso and Derain you will need to remember Chardin, Piero della Francesca, Georges de la Tour and Courbet. Through extended study you will come to recognise his models yet they are transformed through art into images distinctly different from life and artificial. If you expect anything to be straightforward about Balthus then you are misapprehending the art. No matter how complex, allusive and humorous the artist becomes, he is never less than absolutely serious.

Welcome to the world of Balthus.

The current exhibition Balthus (2 September 2018-1 January 2019, Fondation Beyeler, Basel; touring to Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) forms a lean retrospective. (Reviewed here from the catalogue.) The exhibition consists of 40 oil paintings from all periods, starting when the artist was aged 20 and ending with his last completed painting, made when the artist was in his eighties. Considering the relatively small number of paintings, it is perhaps wise that drawings and watercolours have been excluded. The aim is establish a clear view of Balthus main subjects in a selection of representative paintings from the full span of his career.

All of Balthus’s subjects are included: portraits, conversation pieces, street scenes, landscapes and nudes. There is a hybrid work where a still-life is presented with a figure in the form of an incidental profile, not dissimilar to pictures by Bonnard of set tables. Paintings have been brought from around the world for this two venue tour.

Balthus’s first paintings were views of Paris, his home city. Place de l’Odéon, Quai Malaquais and Jardin de Luxembourg appear as they did in the 1920s. The youthful pictures are peopled by stock figures among sturdy trees and roughly painted architecture. They display a sure sense of colour and establish some of the staples of his later street scenes, though the skill and complexity are yet to manifest themselves fully.

The 1934 solo exhibition at Pierre Loeb’s Paris gallery established Balthus’s reputation as a singular – even wayward – painter of figures and assaulter of public morals. His most provocative early nudes – Alice dans le miroir (1933) and La leçon de guitare (1934), the latter of which was considered so sensational it was hidden behind a curtain at the Loeb gallery – have not travelled to Basel. However a number of works from that exhibition are here, including a scene from Wuthering Heights showing Cathy at her toilette.

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[Image: Balthus, La Rue (1933), oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Bequeathed by James Thrall Soby. © Balthus. Photo: © 2018. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence]

La Rue (1933) the large showstopper of the Paris exhibition has travelled to Switzerland from MoMA. The Parisian street is animated by figures who seem nearly wholly allegorical, lifted from book illustrations or old paintings, disconnected from each other. These atomised personages seem oblivious of each other and immersed in their own dreams, with the exception of the youth groping the girl. Whether or not is understands that she is being assaulted is unclear. Her face is impassive and her body language is stilted, not in motion (fighting or fleeing); it is hard to read her response. The youth was originally groping her crotch. The first owner demanded that Balthus alter La Rue to make it less indecorous, which he did. Balthus wavered on the subject of sexual provocativeness. He repainted a number of pictures to make them less overtly erotic. How much of that was genuinely held regret and how much was social positioning is unclear. In early years he shocked to gain attention and notoriety; in later years he curbed his earlier provocations in a bid for acceptance. That said, he did continue to paint nudes in his late years. It may be that he was simply swayed by the requests of his sitters and collectors to make their pictures more genteel. The famous narcissist and headstrong loner may have been less indomitable than he is sometimes presented.

In the late 1930s Balthus painted portraits. Sadly, the imposing and psychologically astute portraits of Derain and Miró have not travelled to Basel but the La Jupe blanche (1937) has. This full length portrait of Antoinette, Balthus’s first wife, shows the model in white clothing, rumpled creamy drapery clinging to the flesh and mimicking the pallor of her skin. The subject is a sensual and languorous object of desire while remaining detached and melancholic, sulky and bored; the subject is ultimately unreachably distant. That, of course, only makes the subject more alluring and memorable.

The late 1930s were Balthus’s Thérèse period, when Thérèse Blanchard modelled for 11 paintings, including a double-portrait with her brother. That painting was bought by Picasso and is loaned by Musée Picasso, Paris. Girls at the point of puberty or in adolescence henceforward became a constant subject. Girls at the threshold of becoming women present potent and changeable subjects because of the daily fluctuation and overlap between childhood and maturity, innocence and knowledge, timidity and adventurousness. In today’s society older girls are subjects bounded by taboos that go unspoken and sometimes unrecognised until they are transgressed.

Compare Balthus’s girls with depictions of girls of the same age by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).

[Images: (left) Balthus, Thérèse (1938), oil on cardboard on wood, 100.3 x 81.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequeathed by Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987. © Balthus, Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence; (right) Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Pitcher (1770)]

In Greuze’s tableaux the subjects are deflowered waifs and violated innocents. Although the purpose of Greuze was ostensibly moral and didactic, the subjects are salacious confections of wretchedness. The paintings are not so much moral warnings of the dangers of abuse as sadistic lingering upon the impact of that abuse. In contrast, Balthus’s subjects are mysterious beings, distant, playful and autonomous. Balthus’s paintings are as ambiguous and rich as people are, whereas Greuze’s paintings are shallow, one-note and fundamentally dishonest: ostensibly moral yet actually prurient. In Balthus’s paintings of adolescents we find an innovation in portraiture of the young that had not been seen since the portraits of children by Géricault in the 1810s.

In 1940, demobilised from the French army and living in the countryside, Balthus turned seriously to the subject of landscape. Two landscapes from the 1940s are included. Clarity and solidity are two of the primary attributes of Balthus’s landscapes. Balthus’s work became more mannered and artificial. When he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome in 1961, Balthus became ever more engaged in ancient and non-Western art. He paid careful attention to every detail of the restoration of the academy’s home, the Renaissance Villa Medici. Balthus took pleasure in building surfaces in his paintings that evoke the thick encrusting of pigment on old plaster. References to Greek and Roman art abound. A visit to Japan is seen in several paintings and the relationship with his future second wife, Setsuko. The Basel exhibition includes the fragile and laboriously worked La Chambre turque (1965-6), which combines Persian and Japanese art in a painting of Setsuko. Experimentation with casein and tempera allowed Balthus to accentuate flatness and matte surfaces but at the expense of pliability. The increased rigidity led to thick and brittle paint surfaces which are fragile, especially on flexible canvas.

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[Image: Balthus, Le Chat au miroir III (1989-94), Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection, Asia. © Balthus]

Le Chat au miroir III (1989-94) shows a seated girl looking into a mirror, accompanied by a cat (a familiar motif for the artist). It is the artist’s last complete work. It is a summation of what came before but it is undercut by weaknesses in handling and conception. The extended gestation of the painting and frequent revisions are not so much evidence of a meditative patience but of a reluctance to finish, perhaps even of uncertainty. The artist may have felt the work was his last and was fearful of finishing and thereby cutting a cord to his working life and legacy. Too much rested on the painting and the desire to imbue it with a lifetime of knowledge and insight may have held the artist back. It might have been better to have worked on a number of minor pictures instead. It is some distance from his best work.

The catalogue is large format and profusely illustrated. The decision to place some illustrations as double-page spreads is regrettable. Illustrations should never be treated this way because it distorts the image by introducing a band of shadow and compression. Otherwise the production is good. Using strong (though not overpowering) colours for the margins of illustrations is effective. Brilliant white margins can clash with images, especially with richly coloured and tonally muted paintings such as Balthus’s.

Catalogue texts discuss works in the exhibition and illustrate others not included, including key works such as La leçon de guitare and the Miró portrait. One particularly useful text by Juan Ángel López-Manzanares deals with Balthus’s relationship with Antonin Artaud. The pair met in 1932 or 1933 and Balthus designed the sets for Les Cencis, the 1935 staging Artaud’s adaptation of Shelley’s verse drama. Balthus painted some portraits of actresses, including two of Iya Abdy. There are passing references to Balthus’s art as an expression Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The Theatre of Cruelty was the idea that naturalism and character had robbed Western theatre of the power of spectacle and mystery and that in order to restore the role of the sacred in theatre the dramatist and actors had to connect to the audience through transformational action and powerful emotion. The idea of Balthus’s early art running parallel to the Theatre of Cruelty – especially in the still-lifes of destroyed objects and the more aggressively erotic nudes – is a feasible thesis.

 

Raphaël Bouvier & Fondation Beyeler (eds.), Balthus, Fondation Beyeler/Hatje Cantz, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 120 illus., CHF62.50/€58.00, ISBN 978 3 7757 4445 4 (German and hardback versions available)

©2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

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New Representations in Japanese Architecture

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Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture examines the way Japanese architecture is presented in graphic presentations. It covers the last twenty years of architectural design in commercial, civic and domestic fields. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn designs, plans, cross-sections, isometric elevations, 3D renderings and frames of CAD – alongside hybrid forms. These drawings are not rough sketches, working drawings or technical blueprints; they are representations made specifically for public display. They are pared down to their essence, conceptualised and aestheticised. There is an emphasis on clean space, elegance and clarity and a preference for schematic presentation over realism, as is common in the field. The layout of this book emphasises the clarity and sparseness of much Japanese architectural design.

Meystre discusses advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to drafting, including hybrid techniques and physical models, all viewed from the perspective of the digital age. There is a discussion of photographs of miniatures, an innovation from the Twentieth Century still used. Meystre notes the artistry of the photographer of models, commenting that frequently in Japan the photographer is credited with more creative input and control of these photographs than the architect or the builder of the model. As one would expect in a book dealing with architect presentations, there are no photographs of completed buildings. The author’s interviews with architects Ryūe Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima and others inform his discourse, with quotes illuminating views of practitioners.

The author notes that there is a generational change in Japanese architecture, which determined the 20-year limitation to his study. “One notable phenomenon of the recent history of Japanese architectural criticism is that whereas architects such as Kazao Shinohara, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki wrote intensely and regularly throughout their careers, their younger colleagues have been very discreet regarding their theoretical positions.”

Meystre-Floating-Microcosm-p-187_Vision-for-Tokyo

[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, My Vision for Tokyo (2009) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In the last two decades, information technology has also radically altered the way architecture is presented and understood by creators and public. Meystre notes that the increasing sophistication and flexibility of imaging technology has allowed architects greater flexibility and permitted experimentation that would have been costly, difficult or time consuming previously. One example is the use of radically reduced-scale images, which has become more commonly lately. “There is no limit to zooming within a window. The upshot is that digital lines, intrinsically, have no scale. […] The result is a common tendency among many architects to make the lines of their drawings spiderlike, to the point of invisibility.”

Use of computers has allowed the development of multiple isolines – hypothetical lines linking positions sharing a common property, such as height, light, temperature, barometric pressure and so forth. The lines map not structures or physical features but qualities. These linear matrices are accurate in visual terms and which produce images that are almost unrecognisable (almost arbitrary) when compared to conventional plans and come close to abstraction. Isoline projections can act as aids to contemplative thinking, in that they disrupt our standard assumptions about what a built structure is and reveal unseen and unconsidered aspects of it, prompting us to think in unexpected ways.

Meystre-Floating-Microcosm-p-133_Senju-Museum

[Image: Ryūe Nishizawa, Hiroshi Senju Museum, Karuizawa (2013) © Ryūe Nishizawa]

The question of how Japanese these presentations are is reflected in the way designs are seen and discussed. In the Japanese language, words describing space have value connotations: omote is “front surface” and “superficial” (something similar to the use in English of “façade”); ura “hidden side” and “authentic”; yami “near darkness” which limits persons and objects in darkness to a level where they are sensed rather than seen, has its origin in the Shinto concept of intuition; yūgen (noun and adjective functioning as an epithet, attribute or noun) meaning (variously) “remote/enclosed/profound/calm/dark mystery/secrecy/depth”, of Buddhist origin, has multiple aesthetic and spiritual attributes. Thus the Japanese ascribe associations and an attendant codified hierarchy of values to their spatial vocabulary.

Hideyuki Nakayama, Maison O, in Hideyuki Nakayama, Sketching, 2010, p. 103

[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, O House (2010) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In practical terms, Meystre suggests this attachment to yami qualities of muted or dim light is reflected in a partiality towards depicting architectural spaces in light that is generally less intense than that encountered in typical Western presentations. However, Meystre goes on to point out that in Japanese architectural practices most cardboard models are made in white and photographed (or altered digitally) in ways that generate over-exposure. This apparent contradiction between a preference for muted light and overexposure in photography is not resolved by the author.

An oddity of the language used by new architects in Japan is the use of kawaii, “cute”, in the vocabulary of design. The term is usually used in relation to low art, animation, manga and discussion of attractiveness, especially in relation to animals and young women and girls. Kawaii in architecture is about ornamentation of plans through use of plants, decoration, furniture and moveable items.

Junya Ishigami, Maison en rangée, Tokyo, 2005, in JA n°66, 06 2007, pp. 54-55

[Image: Junya Ishigami, Row House, Tokyo (2008) © Junya Ishigami]

When these objects are included in illustrations they are necessarily miniaturised, those enhancing their kawaii quality through reduced toy-like, dream-like or charming appearance. This charm offsets the sparse clinical appearance of plans. Another reason the Japanese is linguistic or conceptual; inclusion of small utensils in Japanese designs – something Western designers usually omit – is partly due to the Japanese distinct conception of furniture. Kagu means “utensils for the house”, not differentiating from tables, beds and cutlery. Thus, for the Japanese, there is no threshold between the larger items and the smaller ones – which generates kawaii – whereas Western architects perceive firm qualitative differences between a vase and a table a Japanese does to a lesser extent.

Practicality and reality are not addressed in drawings, as is usual in such schemes. Like painters who cover their under-painting, ruler lines and adjusted positions with a final layer of paint – thereby concealing the secrets of their art – these architects show their final position as clear, unaltered and almost inevitable. There is a section which shows parallels between recent architectural projections and ukiyo-e colour woodblock prints. New designs even quote classic prints, linking illustrations to revered art. There is an essay about the genealogy of prominent architects of the last century and the way influence has been transmitted between them.

There are limitations to the book. The author intends this book to survey new aspects of architectural imagery from Japan rather than familiarise us with any single project. Dimensions are generally not included and rarely are settings or surrounding structures shown in designs. Although examples of approaches discussed in the text are shown, the priority is the overall survey of graphic representation rather than a close reading of any single image or project through a concentrated body of text and illustrations. (Many of the captions within illustrations are illegibly small, as we are not expected to read images in search of specific information.) It might have been illuminating to have a single building presented through various illustrations emphasising particular qualities.

Readers are left somewhat in the dark as to how effective the illustrations are at conveying an accurate or useful impression of the proposed structure. While Meystre is very good at presenting and explicating modes of illustration, he does not assess the efficacy of any of the modes nor of specific examples. Without that expert assessment, we – as lay readers – are left uncertain as to the usefulness and efficacy of the modes that are characteristic of recent Japanese illustration. Surely, functionality is one aspect that may be if not the primary then certainly a significant matter in our understanding of the material illustrated here.

Overall, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm offers a refreshing perspective on architectural presentation, giving a well-researched grounding for an analysis of recent developments and current trends in Japanese conceptualisations of architecture. It will also be of use to those interested in Japanese visual and linguistic culture.

 

Oliver Meystre, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture, Park Books, 2017, hardback, 240pp, 165 col. illus., English version (German version available), ISBN 978 3 03860 054 1

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Japanese Prints in the Collection of Vincent Van Gogh

 

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, The Outskirts of Koshigaya in Musashi Province, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1858, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

In 1886 Vincent Van Gogh bought a batch of around 660 Japanese woodblock prints from a Paris dealer. He intended to sell them on for a profit, benefitting from the fashion for Japonisme that had been current since the Exposition Universelle in 1878. As it turned out, he did not buy especially good examples of prints, opting for quantity over quality. His February-March 1887 display at the Le Tambourin café was a commercial failure (in a catalogue essay Chris Uhlenbeck suggests Van Gogh overpriced) and Van Gogh and his brother were left with unsold stock. Those unsold prints became a resource for the artist. Van Gogh was already aware of Japanese prints before but now, with a large selection to hand, he could examine them at length and absorb the style of masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kunisada.

This catalogue adds more to the recent exhibition Van Gogh and Japan (see my review here).

He used the prints to decorate his rooms and planned to trade them for works of art, though apparently this did not come to pass. Some prints went to his sister Willemien and after her death these returned to the collection of Vincent Van Gogh junior (son of Theo). Thus most of the 660 prints Van Gogh bought passed eventually to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The current count is 511 sheets.

The classic Japanese colour woodblock print was discovered in 1765, developing from the uncoloured print. It is characterised by prominent black linear designs separating flat planes of strong unmixed colour, strong diagonal and absence of chiaroscuro and shadow (in the early period). A lot of this fed into the paintings that Van Gogh made in south of France 1888-90. Indeed when he arrived in the region for the first time he wrote ecstatically to his brother about the intense light and vivid colours as being the Japan of Europe.

Hokusai’s manga (sketchbooks, published over many decades) included drawings of people, flora, fauna and supernatural beings. The manga were an inspiration for Van Gogh and led to his refining his drawing technique with ink and reed pen. This catalogue only touches upon that, as it is addressed in other books in detail.

Some sheets Van Gogh bought were only parts of triptychs. For practical reasons, Japanese prints used sheets at a standard size, so for larger pictures makers used multiple linked designs printed on individual sheets and hung them together. Uhlenbeck writes, “Van Gogh unfortunately never commented in writing on multiple-sheet compositions. It is possible that he did not know that many of the designs in his collection were incomplete, and this may have affected his conception of the Japanese rules of composition.”

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[Image: Utagawa Kunisada, View of the Spring Rain, central sheet of a triptych, 1820–29, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

There are a number of notable absences in the collection. There are few horizontal landscapes, which may have been in the Le Tambourin exhibition and later confiscated by creditors when the café was closed. The absence of war scenes may have been because fewer of those prints were exported by Japanese traders keen to downplay their country’s violent past. The absence of shunga (erotic prints) might have been because they were too pricey for Van Gogh. It is hard to know what exactly motivated Van Gogh’s choices, apart from cost and availability. Did he buy what he thought would appeal to general collectors or what he found appealing? Did he aim to collect work that presented a variety in terms of subject, age and format or were these aspects relatively unimportant?

While there are a number of fine prints, the majority are not outstanding pieces according to experts. For example, there are no prints by Hokusai, who was by 1886 already too well known and costly for Van Gogh. There are a number of prints featuring trees, particularly ones with jutting irregular trunks and branches and it is reasonable to assume that these images caught Van Gogh’s eye because they reminded him of the trees of his native Brabant. In these cases at least, Van Gogh was using his personal artistic taste in the selection.

Van Gogh was especially partial towards so-called “crépon” prints (technically chirimen-e), which were prints which had been subjected to a mechanical process which textured the paper. Uhlenbeck describes the process of crêping, which led to the paper crinkling and shrinking, the edges becoming uneven. He bought 20 examples. It seems at least some of the crépon prints in Van Gogh’s collection were recent and manufactured expressly for the export market.

This catalogue presents new information about the prints. Data regarding artists, subjects and dates have rounded out our knowledge about the collection. The conditions of prints have been assessed and the illustrations show the uncropped sheets, including the tattered margins and pinholes, showing how the prints were handled and used. Van Gogh is known to have pinned some to walls and specks of oil paint can be detected, meaning that they were hung near his easel. The prints that he copied have been identified. There are missing prints and Van Gogh did know other prints from books, magazines, illustrations and visits to galleries. Even so, this largely intact collection provides us with a useful resource which allows us to understand Van Gogh’s taste and knowledge.

 

Louis van Tilborgh (ed.), Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Thames & Hudson, 2018, hardback, $45, 224pp, over 170 col. illus., ISBN 978 0500 23 9896

© Alexander Adams

Itō Shinsui

Hair_

[Image: Itō Shinsui, Hair (1952), woodblock print, ink and pigments on paper, © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018]

 

The opening up of Japan to the West in 1868 and the drive to modernise and industrialise presented Japanese artists with serious questions. How could Japanese art stay truly Japanese in the face of Western art and technology? Would modernity rob Japanese culture of vital aspects? Could an artist be both Japanese and modern or was that an inherent contradiction?

Japanese society was changing rapidly and the arts reflected that. While japonisme became the fashion in the West, Japan was adjusting to incorporate Western influence. Shin hanga (new prints) was an element of the traditional nihonga (Japanese-style painting) movement, which was set up in opposition to the sōsaku hanga (creative prints) part of yōga (Western-style painting). Nihonga commenced as an official tendency in 1890 expressly to counter Western influence in culture. Shin hanga was promoted by publishers as a revival of the traditional ukiyo-e school and used traditional woodblock-printing methods and division of labour. At this time many of the skills of the ukiyo-e (Edo period) printmakers were dying out as new technology (such as lithography) were rendering the labour-intensive woodblock printing process outmoded. Shin hanga was an attempt to capitalise on the Western demand for Japanese prints, by effectively reviving the tradition of ukiyo-e, but it was also popular among the Japanese. The traditional subjects had a nostalgic appeal and presented Japan in idealised form at a time when daily life was becoming divorced from the rural routine of life.   

The exhibition Itō Shinsui: Tradition and Modernity, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (1 March-20 May 2018) presents the art of one of the most renowned shin hanga printmakers, Itō Shinsui (1898-1972). Joan Miró visited Japan and was influenced by East Asian art – and his art was popular in Japan – so it is only fitting that this survey as a modern Japanese master is presented at his foundation in Barcelona.

Before the mirror

[Image: Itō Shinsui, Before the Mirror (1916), woodblock print, ink and pigments on paper, © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018]

 

Shinsui was trained by Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1972). Shinsui, who trained as a painter, made his first print Before the Mirror (1916) aged 18. It was the epitome of the approach and subject matter that would come to dominate the 147 prints he designed: the young beautiful woman, seen in a moment of private reflection, depicted with clarity, elegance and refinement. Although Shinsui’s subjects were traditional, he was not an avowed traditionalist in his style. The unusual and innovative compositions and colour choices make his art distinct from the masters of the ukiyo-e. Close-ups and angles make his work distinct. His decision to leave some marks of the baren (printing paddle) used to rub the paper over the inked block distinguishes his prints from the smooth inking of the ukiyo-e printers. At first glance, this makes his prints look like lithographs, with the crayon marks visible. Could this decision be related to the late Nineteenth Century French practice of heavy inking of etching plates? In this way printers and artists could make impressions unique by varying the inking to highlight certain qualities. Before the Snow (1926) seems to employ a patterned embossing on the woman’s fur collar but this goes unremarked upon in the catalogue.

The trilingual catalogue is published by the Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, lender of the 100 prints exhibited in Barcelona. It is an attractive book, with Japanese-paper flyleaves. It includes discussions of Shinsui’s art, handsome illustrations and a chronology of the artist’s life. A section covers the process of Japanese woodblock printmaking. The only absence is a discussion of how Shinsui’s printmaking relates to his painting. However, for Westerners unfamiliar with even the best known of Shinsui’s paintings, that would have required too much space. It is disappointing that the page gutter bisects two-page illustrations. Illustrations should never be placed over two pages. Otherwise the catalogue is faultless.

The women have the pallid skin colour typical of Japanese conventions of beauty, with slight rosy flushes on the cheeks and nipples. Faces are stylised. Clothing is generally traditional, featuring the flowing robes, sashes and printed fabrics with bold designs typical of the Edo period. In some prints Shinsui presents modern Japanese women in Western clothes: in berets, skirts and neckties, with hair short, curled or parted. In one print he showed a woman next to a Western clock. Although Shinsui advocated for the portrayals of life to include elements that were characteristic of the period – as a form of historical record – his own practice erred strongly in favour of the showing scenes typical of the past periods. In perhaps only the slightest detail do some of the prints show us the reality of Twentieth century Japan.

In Shinsui’s prints we find the crisp lines and strong patterns we would expect. Typical to Japanese prints are areas of pattern, such as blinds, walls, waves, raindrops and printed fabrics. In a handful of prints the style is Western, following the current styles of colour illustration that were widely available in Japan. These are the least successful prints. Midday in a Summer Resort (1941) is an example. The generic colour scheme, cartoon-style abbreviations and the deep and cluttered pictorial field all go against the strengths of shin hanga and Shinsui’s style. Shinsui’s printmaking evolved relatively little in terms of style, though his subjects varied over the different series he made.

Mount Fuji as seen from Mitohara beach_

[Image: Itō Shinsui, Mount Fuji as seen from Mitohama Beach (1938), woodblock print, ink and pigments on paper, © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018]

 

Many landscape prints are included in the exhibition. They are rural scenes in the main: a hut in a snowy mountains, a river bridge in the rain, a coastal view, fields below mountains. These are conventional subjects. The images were drawn from personal observation rather than ideal fabrications or variations upon existing archetypes. The dramatic tonal range and juxtapositions of strong colours distinguish Shinsui’s landscapes.

This excellent book is the most comprehensive book in English on the artist and would make an essential addition to any library covering Japanese art.

Akiko Katsuta, Katsuyama Shigeru & Khanh Trinh, Itō Shinsui, Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, 2018, text Spanish/Catalan/English, paperback, 210pp, fully col. illus., €25, ISBN 978 84 16411 37 5