NINETEENTH-century Japanese woodblock prints defined the country, both for outsiders and for the Japanese themselves. The prints' vivid colors and elegant stylization influenced European art, and their images remain among the best-known representations of Japan. Virtually every American, for example, has seen some variation on Hokusai Katsushika's "The Great Wave," a circa-1830 print included in the National Gallery of Art's "Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868" show early this year.
The vibrancy of these prints expressed a new popular culture, the result of a growing middle class and the declining power of feudal lords. A century after "The Great Wave," however, that culture had largely vanished. Japan was run by a new manner of military overlords, and Japanese art had become heavily Westernized. Born in 1876, Yoshida Hiroshi studied Western-style painting. When he began making woodblock prints, his goal was to simulate the soft, liquid hues of European watercolors. And when he sought picturesque sites to depict, he went not to Kyoto but to India.
In 1931, Yoshida and his teenage son Toshi traveled by boat to Rangoon, Burma, and from there by train to and around India. The artist's principal objective was the Taj Mahal, but he covered a remarkable amount of territory, painting in oils and sketching in crayon from one end of the subcontinent to the other. Even today, visiting places as far-flung as Lahore (in what is now Pakistan) and Madurai (in southern India) in the same trip would be a major undertaking. After returning to Japan, he executed the woodblocks collected in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery's "Yoshida Hiroshi: Japanese Prints of India and Southeast Asia." Most of the 32 prints were made the year of the trip, although 11 weren't completed until 1932.
Part of the show's appeal is simply that of yellowed vacation snapshots: Here is Singapore when it was a simple fishing village, the Indian sky before it was befouled by industrial pollution, northern India and Pakistan when camels and elephants were still a common form of transportation. Sometimes, though, it seems likely that Yoshida's meticulous prints have neatened the streetscapes a bit.
Yoshida's renderings are, in fact, excessively tidy. As a draftsman, the artist was skilled but clinical. There's a bit of art nouveau in the delicacy of his work, but at their blandest these prints just look like fashion-magazine illustrations. Yoshida's work established him as a leader of the movement known as "shin hanga" -- which simply means "new prints" -- but today his drawings look more old-fashioned than those of such earlier masters as Hokusai.
What distinguishes these images, however, is not line but color. Yoshida's principal interest was the quality of light in sun-baked, subtropical India, which is very unlike the diffused light of Japan's maritime climate. To explore the shifting illumination, the artist sometimes depicted a subject at different times of day. There are six prints of the Taj Mahal in this exhibition, although not that many basic drawings of the structure: Yoshida reused the same woodblocks with different inks to present a scene at different times of day. Thus the same view becomes "Night in Taj Mahal" when rendered with rich grays or "Morning Mist in Taj Mahal," with a low-lying blue mist yielding to the pink of daybreak in the upper sky.
If Yoshida's flat drawings show the baleful effects of photography on Japanese prints, his tints presage the color cinematography that was yet to be invented when he made these prints. Like such great motion-picture photographers as Sven Nykvist, Nestor Almendros and Kazuo Miyagawa, Yoshida understood the expressiveness of changing light and how to capture it on its boldest canvases, water and sky. Indeed, what attracted him to the Taj Mahal may have been the large pool that reflects the building's form; that's an architectural feature the structure shares with several of the other edifices Yoshida decided to picture.
The artist also appreciated the drama of visual contrast. Although these prints depict nothing remotely lurid, they sometimes recall the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio's violent Bible scenes. Particularly striking is a nighttime view of the Taj Mahal with a small but bright lamp burning vividly at its center.
In order to have full control of the printing process, Yoshida published his own work, using scores of color impressions per print. The champion here is "Snake Charmers," made with 81 impressions. Despite all those runs through the press, however, the piece has the artist's customary lightness. Just as Yoshida intended, the print looks as if it almost could be a watercolor.
The rather dull "Snake Charmers" is the only one of these works that's simply a street scene. Elsewhere, everyday life is conducted in the shadows of the grand structures that clearly fascinated Yoshida. In addition to the Taj Mahal, one of the enduring landmarks of the Mughuls' rule of northern India, these prints illustrate massive buildings dedicated to the Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh faiths: the carved Ellora Caves near Bombay, the temple of Minakshi and Shiva in Madurai, the Golden Temple of Amitsar, the Stupa of Sanchi. There's even one monument to another sort of fantastic power: the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, constructed by the empire that still ruled India when the artist visited.
Yoshida sometimes applied his time-shifting colors to other sorts of subjects. The printmaker made day and night versions of "Caravan from Afghanistan," one of the few images to portray nothing more monumental than a camel. Yet he clearly preferred things that dwarfed human scale, like the Himalayan peak Kanchenjunga, which he depicted in three prints -- identical except that they depict the light at morning, midday and afternoon. These mountain vistas show that Yoshida didn't travel quite as far from 19th-century Japanese printmaking as his Western style and Indian locations suggest. After all, the towering peak is a classic Japanese subject. In fact, Hokusai's "The Great Wave" is one of a series called "36 Views of Mount Fuji." Hokusai varied the settings while Yoshida altered only the light, but both sought the moment that unites the ephemeral and the eternal.
YOSHIDA HIROSHI: Japanese Prints of India and Southeast Asia -- Through Oct. 17 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202/357-3200 (TDD: 202/357-1729). Open daily 10 to 5:30 (open Thursday until 8).