When I was 19 years old, I wanted to be an interpreter. Not just any interpreter, I wanted to interpret Japanese at the UN. Never mind that Japanese is not spoken on the UN floor, because those sorts of details don’t occur to you when you’re 19 and dreaming. This desire was born as much from my love of language and languages, and the Japanese language in particular, as it was from a love of Japanese culture itself. So it is a bit strange in retrospect that I did not write about Japanese dress until three years after receiving my master’s degree in dress history and museum studies.
But life is strange and takes you in unanticipated directions, as my having become a writer and researcher of dress history, rather than an interpreter, shows.
This review was also completely unexpected. I had been anticipating another list of exhibitions, particularly those I missed in my last post, not a full-fledged review. But, I was in Los Angeles for a dear friend’s wedding this past weekend and decided to “treat” myself to a day at LACMA without my reviewer’s hat on. I really should have known better.
Living for the Moment: Japanese Prints from the Barbara S. Bowman Collection opened October 11 and will be on display until May 1, 2016. Quoting directly from LACMA’s website, “The exhibition features over 100 prints of transformative promised gifts of Japanese works to LACMA, representing the work of 32 artists. Included are examples of rare early prints of the ukiyo-e genre (pictures of the floating world); works from the golden age of ukiyo-e at the end of the eighteenth century by Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Katsukawa Shunshō; and nineteenth century prints by great masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and others.”
I was drawn to this exhibition because of my above-mentioned love of Japanese culture. Ukiyo-e had been my first introduction to Japanese art, and as a result they hold a special place in my heart. However, this was my first ukiyo-e exhibition after receiving my training as a dress historian — and my focus was quickly drawn to the depiction of clothing.
Ukiyo-e, literally pictures of the floating world, are woodblock prints depicting, essentially, every day life. The concept of ukiyo, or floating world, is Buddhist and discusses the transient nature of everyday life. To quote from the Living for the Moment (a wonderful title, in my opinion) catalogue, “[p]opular writer Asai Ryoui reinterpreted the phrase in a more positive light around 1661 in his book Ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the floating world): Living only for the moment, turning our full attentions to the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maples leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, divering ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a hit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.”
Being written in 1661, there is a great deal of back story here. Until 1603, Japan had been in a state of near perpetual civil war for two hundred years as various samurai tried to gain, or briefly gained, military and political supremacy. When Tokugawa Ieyasu came out as the shogun, or supreme commander, in about 1603 he went about regulating everything from social mobility to dress (as I discussed in my article on meisen kimono article here on Worn Through) in order to solidify his dynasty and rule. So writing about enjoying the floating world was one philosophical way of accepting the new order of things – stability can probably feel like chaos after two centuries of war. Thus, the era of embracing the floating world, the transient every day life was born.
This meant depicting the mundane, from courtesans and kabuki actors, to peddlers and farm hands as they existed in everyday life, which of course, includes the clothes.
With my previous review still fresh in my mind I could not help comparing this depiction of East Asian dress, of Japanese dress by Japanese people themselves, with the drawings by Europeans of Korean and other East Asian garments I had seen at Art of the Fold. This in turn spurred memories of ukiyo-e I had seen years ago depicting Europeans, as seen by Japanese artists at the time of Japan’s opening to the west in the second half of the 19th century (not an especially attractive era in the West for facial hair, and rather hysterically and accurately captured by the Japanese artists). These thoughts, combined with depictions of Chinese and Korean scholars in many of the ukiyo-e prints showed that even an informed artist can let stereotypes and national attitudes get in the way of accurate dress depiction.
Which led to another question… how accurate was the dress depiction in these woodblock prints?
Despite my love of Japanese culture when I was younger, I am remarkably ignorant of its dress history. I was struck by the intricate detail of each of the prints, down to the checkered/plaid patterns or delicate painted flowers on various kimono, especially since many everyday sketches by Western artists of the common man lose this kind of dress detail, as my visit to the Getty and Art of the Fold demonstrated. But if the tendency to misrepresent “the other” whomever it may be proved universal, might not the tendency to romanticize the poor? Then again, Japan and its woodblock artists did not have the history of catering to the nobility that Europe had, and the emphasis on valuing the floating world precisely because it was transient may have actually pushed the accuracy of the depictions. The very nature of wood-block prints — being sold to whomever wished to buy them, and discards being used as packing material to France to inspire Impressionists — meant that such detail was not absolutely necessary. And yet even in depictions of manual labourers, you can tell (if you know what to look for) the pattern of their indigo-dyed cotton yukata and other work clothes.
As well as being riveting, it was a very thought-provoking exhibition. I was reminded of not only what had first drawn me to East Asian studies as an undergrad, but inspired to look more in-depth into not only Japanese dress history, but its artistic depiction. I learned how to properly tell one ukiyo-e artist’s style from another (embarrassingly) for the first time — and in true LACMA fashion this was not taught to me through any overly long catalogue essay or wall text, but through showing two artists’ depictions of similar scenes of life side by side, which brought the individual styles starkly to light.
Any time I am both taught something new about art/fashion/fabric and leave an exhibition with new research questions, I consider the exhibition a complete and total success. Living for the Moment, is undoubtedly one. of these
2015 was LACMA’s 50th anniversary year, between this exhibition, its numerous modern art shows, and the forthcoming Reigning Men show, I am eagerly anticipating what it can teach us all over the next 50 years.
Living for the Moment is open in both the Ahmanson Building and the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA until May 1, 2016.
Have you seen the exhibition? What did you think? What other exhibitions taught you something about dress history — or raised research questions you’d never thought of — unexpectedly? Are there any events or exhibitions happening in your area you think Worn Through readers should here about? Please feel free to leave a comment or to email me the details!
All images courtesy of LACMA.