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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.

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.

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