MASTERPIECES OF JAPANESE SCREEN PAINTING By Miyeko Murase Braziller. 232 pp. $150
YOKOHAMA: Prints from 19th-century Japan By Ann Yonemura Arthur Sackler Gallery/Smithsonian 198 pp. $45; paperback, $26.95
MASTERPIECES of Japanese Screen Painting is one handsome art book that the Impressionist painters would certainly have appreciated or even looked upon as a source of inspiration. Take, for example, Ogata Korin's (1658-1716) dozen large panels that depict a narrow bridge crisscrossing a golden marshland replete with irises. Korin's painting is deliberately decorative and abstract in composition, portraying an episode in The Tale of Ise, in which a young aristocrat longs for his mistress in Kyoto and composes a poem while gazing at a field of irises. The reproduction on two gatefold pages is simply luxurious (the original screen painting can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Korin painted a series of these, completing an ambitious project reminiscent of Monet's waterlilies two centuries later.
One of my favorites is a pair of screens, painted by a follower of Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539-1613), depicting episodes from Lady Murasaki's famous Tale of Genji. The imperial garden is resplendent with cherry blossoms and golden clouds; ladies of the court are magnificently attired in their colorful 12-layered kimono. The right panel, depicting the Shining Prince on his way to visit Lady Utsusemi in her chamber, is a marvelous collage of dreamy images separated by golden clouds that seem to capture the magic of a summer night long, long ago. ALTHOUGH THE DUTCH kept a tiny outpost in southern Japan during her two centuries of virtual isolation, it wasn't until Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated, among other things, the opening of the port of Yokohama to the Western world that the country really began to take off -- rapidly and radically -- toward its own vision of modernization. This catalogue raisonne' is a rarity in that it brings together, visually and with an informative text, the various aspects of Japan's leap into the modern world as seen through the eyes of Japanese artists. The woodblock prints (a selection from the collection of former diplomat William Leonhart and his wife, Florence) form what is called "Yokohama-e," a subgenre of ukiyoe ("pictures of the floating world"), depicting life in Yokohama.
Many of the woodblock prints follow the traditions of past masters, particularly Hiroshige I, while others, notably Sadahide, present startlingly modern compositions. According to author Ann Yonemura, Sadahide may have seen copies of the Illustrated London News and may have borrowed its visual concepts to carve out his "Complete Picture of the Newly Opened Port of Yokohama." But Sadahide's composition is vastly superior to anything in the Illustrated News. The contrast of colors -- black hulls of Western ships displaying red, white and blue flags, the light blue sea and sky -- is very effective. The cropped image of black ships on both sides of the picture frame a panoramic view of Yokohama harbor. It is as if the artist were composing just the right image as seen through an adjustable telephoto lens. The curly waves, however, are delightfully playful, carved in the japoneseque tradition of Hiroshige and others.
The 85 multicolored woodblock prints in the collection include scenic topographical maps, serendipitous misrepresentations of foreign cities (Washington looks more like Agra, India), Westerners frolicking with geishas, pictures of new inventions such as the steam locomotive and the formidable battleships. The prints were taken by roving peddlers to the far corners of the Japanese isles and sold to the curious who eagerly awaited news of the latest developments in that strangely modern town called Yokohama. The exhibition, which was at the Sackler Gallery until September, has moved on to San Francisco. K.F. Tanabe is an editor and art director of Book World.