All the world’s a stage in the art of Kobayashi Kiyochika.
Best known for a series of 93 woodblock prints of Tokyo — 42 of which are on view in a special exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — the Japanese artist is rightly celebrated for dramatic lighting that turns the city into a kind of theatrical set.
Several of the cityscapes in “Kiyochika: Master of the Night” are illuminated only by moonlight. Some feature fireworks, paper lanterns, fireflies or the lambent glow of a kerosene or gas lamp. In a few cases, the light source is a raging inferno.
When Kiyochika resorts to working in broad daylight, as he does here only rarely, the pictures lack punch.
Although the show is timed to coincide with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, it makes for a dark — and, frankly, somewhat odd — companion piece. Nevertheless, it’s worth a look.
At the time Kiyochika was making these prints — between 1876 and 1881 — Tokyo was still a new capital taking root in the small fishing village once known as Edo. Although Kiyochika’s images document the arrival of gaslight, locomotives and bricks, he’s not a documentarian. Despite the beauty and clarity of these pictures, they’re haunted — even animated — by a feeling of unease about the future.
That sense of disquietude is amplified by the moody lighting. When people are shown, they’re typically depicted in silhouette, disengaged from one another. It’s almost as if they — not we — are the audience to these scenes of transformation, observing a world in flux, from the shadows and with an attitude of vague misgiving.
This, of course, was a shift from Japanese printmaking tradition, in which people are more typically shown engaged in the business of living, not watching the world go by.
By contrast, Kiyochika’s figures resemble ghosts. One, identified in wall labels as the “man in the hat,” is said to be a stand-in for the artist. He sports a European brimmed hat, a style that had just come into fashion in Japan and that Kiyochika uses to symbolize the new world order.
Though known for his ability to sketch from life, the self-taught artist (1847-1915) was a master of composition, using careful placement, and even more careful lighting, to heighten his desired effect. In one 1879 image of a train, for instance, Kiyochika based the locomotive — a model that had not yet arrived in Japan — on an earlier railroad picture by the American printmakers Currier and Ives.
Another of Kiyochika’s pictures, depicting one of two 1881 fires that laid waste to parts of Tokyo, is largely imagined. Though Kiyochika wrote that the picture was “drawn from nature,” only the street scene had been sketched weeks earlier, with flames and fleeing people added in later. In another print depicting the fire’s aftermath, “Ryogoku After the Fire,” the sparing arrangement of charred wood posts — along with the spectral human figures receding into the distance — lends the work a bleakly cinematic quality.
But the works in “Master of the Night” aren’t photographs. Created with ink on paper, they’re still tethered to an artistic past that the artist hadn’t completely shaken off. Kiyochika was pulled between two extremes: the tradition of ukiyo-e printmaking — characterized by prettily “floating” landscapes — and a more critical engagement with a rapidly changing world.
That antithesis imbues “Master of the Night” with unexpected depth and complexity, along with a dramatic sense of changing scenery. Looking at Kiyochika’s pictures, it’s as if you can still feel yesterday’s sun setting over your shoulder, even as another day is breaking before you.
The Sackler Gallery is pitching “Kiyochika: Master of the Night” as a complement to its upcoming “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames.” Opening May 3, that exhibition also features several urban nocturnes.
An even better corollary might be to the National Gallery’s recently closed exhibition “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris.” Here’s why:
The radical modernization of Tokyo documented by Kiyochika just happens to have been inspired by the modernization of Paris that took place between 1853 and 1870. Known as the Haussmann Plan (after its mastermind, city planner Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann), it was that urban renewal that Marville recorded in his famous 1860s photographs, which were the centerpiece of the NGA show.
Both bodies of work thrum with tension, a result of anxiety over leaving the past behind and embracing an uncertain future.
— Michael O’Sullivan