The scenes of late 19th century Tokyo capture a city on the rise, with multistory brick buildings, gas lighting, telegraph poles, railroads and warships cruising the surrounding rivers.
The traditional woodblock prints don’t celebrate progress, however. Rather, they emanate a sense of unease and disengagement, with mysterious silhouetted figures who never seem to interact and moody tones of blue and gray that explore natural and man-made sources of light. A great deal of the action takes place in twilight and at night.
This almost Impressionist take on a centuries-old art form is the most compelling aspect of “Kiyochika: Master of the Night,” a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery that runs through July 27 and coincides with this year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival.
The works are the product of Kobayashi Kiyochika, a self-taught artist and son of a minor official in the Tokugawa shogunate, who returned to Tokyo after an eight-year absence in 1874 and set about chronicling the changed city in an ambitious series of 100 scenes.
Kiyochika was carrying on a Japanese tradition of rendering cityscapes, usually to depict rebuilding after disasters like fires and earthquakes. But in the process, he caught a microcosm of a nation emerging from centuries of isolation and was going through societal and governmental upheaval to westernize and become a major power.
The artist’s project was stopped at 93 prints by an 1881 fire that devastated the city. What survives in the Sackler collection is not just a catalogue of physical changes in the urban landscape but a series of experiments in the use of barely emerging or receding light to convey a sense of mystery and surprise.
“His view is a stark one, of men and women on the verge of a world with all the old props kicked away,” said James Ulak, the exhibition curator. “There are no heavens or hells, no intercessory gods or troublesome demons. Some viewers say they can feel the silence in his prints.”
One of the more striking of the 42 images on display is a locomotive speeding out of central Tokyo at night. Light is vividly reflected in the steam from the engine’s smokestack, the clouds and the water in the background. The twist is that the locomotive is a variety that hadn’t yet appeared in Japan and may have been borrowed from a Currier and Ives print or other source in an attempt to depict what the future might hold, Ulak said.
One recurring feature in Kiyochika’s work is the “Man in the Hat,” a figure dressed in a traditional kimono or Western-style clothes wearing a brimmed hat then in fashion. A variant of the French flâneur, or stroller, he appears alone or with a few companions and reinforces the ambiguous mood as a detached observer adjusting to modernization without actually interacting with his surroundings.
Kiyochika makes a subtle intimation of Japan’s rising military might in another print showing spectators watching the test of a new torpedo with the resulting release of a geyser of water. And in a section of the exhibit called “Bricktown,” several prints depict how modern Western brick buildings supplanted traditional low-rise wood structures.
“The Japanese didn’t particularly like them. They were awkward, expensive symbols of the new,” Ulak said.
Still another traditional scene with a modernist feel shows an audience looking at the then-novel spectacle of pigmented fireworks. The work has an almost cinematic feel, emphasizing that things to look at are more important than personal interaction.
Kiyochika dwelled on innovations like gas street lamps that allowed people to engage in leisure activities during what once were largely inaccessible hours. He also seemed fixated on the bridges that marked the city’s land and water crossroads and are replete with symbolism. They not only connected Tokyo’s city center with its pleasure quarters but had a metaphorical meaning, as Buddhism’s transition point in spiritual journeys to other realms.
“The image of the bridge seemed to raise questions for the artists about personal and societal destinations in a period of significant transition,” according to a catalogue compiled for the exhibit. “Looming powerful and mute in a fog-shrouded river or silhouetted by a sunset, bridges seem to be a constant point of reference, providing a human scale to vast expanses.”
The Sackler will continue a theme of exploring artistic impressions of a changing city at night when it mounts the first major exhibition devoted to James McNeill Whistler’s early period in London, opening May 3.
“Kiyochika: Master of the Night” runs through July 27 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily and admission is free.