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Smithsonian's Kiyochika Exhibit Illuminates a Bygone Tokyo

Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Kiyochika’s work explores the changing world of 19th century Tokyo.

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.

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