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At the Mirror Continues Tradition of Japanese Print Exhibitions at the DAM

In At the Mirror, nearly 70 Japanese woodblock prints from the Denver Art Museum’s collection are exhibited together for the first time. Dating from 1901 to 2001, the selection includes prints acquired since 1970, when the museum added its first “modern” Japanese prints to its holdings.

However, At the Mirror (on view through September 21) is not the first time the museum has presented an exhibition of Japanese prints from the 1900s. That happened back in March 1927. The Denver Art Museum hosted a show that included prints by Hiroshi Yoshida (1876‒1950) and other artists representing the shin hanga (new print) movement. Besides Denver, the traveling exhibition went to museums in Brooklyn, Montclair, New Jersey; Worcester, Massachusetts; Syracuse, Toledo, and Dayton, where it closed in May 1927 (Kendall Brown, Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints, Toledo Museum of Art, 2013, 15).

In an article published in the Rocky Mountain News on March 20, 1927, Arnold Ronnebeck (1885‒1947), the Denver Art Museum’s director from 1926 to 1931, wrote: “An exhibition of color-prints by living Japanese artists. Most of them continue to work in the spirit of the old masters and succeed. A few try to be European and, of course, fail. All have one thing in common: an amazing technical perfection.”

Ronnebeck called into question the technical perfection achieved by certain artists and stated that “…it is just this extreme love for technical perfection that has been the ruin of Japanese art.” In particular, he wrote about Yoshida: “This artist has traveled much. He exhibits views of the Niagara Falls, of the Grand Canyon, of the Acropolis, of Venice, of the Sphinx and of Switzerland… So far removed from the Japanese tradition is his work that one is surprised to find a Japanese signature in the corner, and only at close examination one is able to persuade one’s self that his prints are not watercolors.” Yoshida’s print of El Capitan, included in At the Mirror, reflects many of the observations made by Ronnebeck: it strives for technical perfection, it depicts a view of Yosemite National Park, and it looks like a watercolor. 

Hiroshi Yoshida, 1876‒1950, El Capitan, 1925. Color woodblock print. Purchased in honor of the Asian Art Association’s 30th anniversary and the Petrie Institute of Western Art’s 10thanniversary. Funds provided by the Sam F. and Freda R. Davis Charitable Trust, Salon du Musée, and William Matthews, 2011.7. 

Artists of the shin hanga (new print) movement depended on a traditional division of labor that assigned an artist’s design into the hands of two professionals, the carver and printer, who cut the woodblocks and printed them onto sheets of paper. Besides the shin hanga movement, the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement also arose during the early decades of the twentieth century. Sosaku hanga artists broke from tradition and carved their own woodblocks and printed their own images. In general, sosaku hanga prints are much freer in design.

The 1927 exhibition included only shin hanga artists. It would be intriguing to know what Arnold Ronnebeck would have thought about prints by sosaku hanga artists, such as A Spring by Koshiro Onchi (1891‒1955), pictured below, and Kobe Beach Scene by Hide Kawanishi (1894‒1965), pictured at top, that are exhibited in At the Mirror.

Koshiro Onchi, 1891‒1955, A Spring (from the series Happiness), 1914. Color woodblock print. Bequest of Dr. Joseph de Heer, 2009.389.

Image credit for top photo: Hide Kawanishi, 1894‒1965, Kobe Beach Scene, 1929. Color woodblock print. Bequest of Dr. Joseph de Heer, 2009.412. 

Ronald Otsuka is the Dr. Joseph de Heer Curator of Asian Art. Ronald Otsuka has been with the DAM since 1973, and when visiting the museum, he recommends that visitors don’t miss Depth and Detail: Carved Bamboo from China, Japan, and Korea, located in the Walter + Mona Lutz Gallery on level 5 of the North Building.