Paired exhibitions at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, linked under the title “Japan Modern,” evocatively survey the effects of these upheavals. “Prints in the Age of Photography” is the smaller of the two, yet offers a more comprehensive view of its subject. “Photography from the Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck Collection” doesn’t journey as far into the past, and is less representative, although no less intriguing.
The first known photograph made in Japan dates to 1857, and Katz and Huyck’s oldest acquisitions are from the 1880s. The selection on display at the Sackler starts with pictures made in the 1920s by skilled hobbyists, some unidentified. The post-1945 pictures, however, are the work of a small number of professional shooters. Nearly all of both groups worked in black-and-white.
Katz and Huyck worked as screenwriters — their credits include “American Graffiti” — so it’s hardly a surprise that they also collected avant-garde Japanese films. Three of them are screened in one of the show’s galleries, where visitors can watch protesters and street performers wander through late-1960s Tokyo, accompanied by Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground.
Of American influences, those are merely the most audible. The U.S. presence in Japan is one of the two major motifs in the show, which includes scenes of postwar devastation and American military bases. Shomei Tomatsu photographed children of U.S. troops, as well as relics of the Nagasaki A-bombing. In one of the eerie latter pictures, a partly melted bottle is twisted into a shape that suggests a singed animal corpse.
Also included are several views of traditional Japan, mostly the less-industrialized North. Masahisa Fukase’s high-contrast close-ups see ravens as manifestations of the ancient and untamed, while Hiroshi Hamaya depicts a man in indigenous bamboo clothing and children singing in an unearthly snow cage.
If American culture is invisible in these images of an unmodern Japan, it’s not entirely absent. Daido Moriyama, whose stunning shot of a red light bulb against a midnight-blue sky is one of the few color pictures, began his travels after reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
The show ends with its most recent entry, Sohei Nishino’s elaborate photo-collage of central Tokyo, defined by its railroad lines. Constructed from more than a thousand individual frames, the 2004 picture appears almost as complex as the Japanese capital itself.
The collage’s tracks lead to “Prints in the Age of Photography,” which opens with two renderings of Tokyo’s Shimbashi Station. One is similar in style to woodblock prints from the Edo period (1603-1868), and was made by Utagawa Hiroshige III, heir to one of the earlier era’s most celebrated artists. The other, by Kiyochika Kobayashi, is a Western-influenced night scene with dramatic contrast between night and artificial light.
Photography supplanted Japan’s large mass-market print industry, and accelerated a trend toward more personal and impressionistic styles. The change can be seen in the work of a single artist, Un’ichi Hiratsuka. His 1941 depiction of a temple at Koya-san, a sacred mountain, is executed in bold black lines and simpler forms than his earlier work.
Where Edo-period prints combined artistic and documentary value, these artworks simplify details and emphasize patterns, whether to depict a single tile roof or the most popular subject in traditional Japanese art: Mount Fuji, rendered here in a few expressionist gestures by Masami “Francois” Nakayama.
Yet despite taking cues from French art, the artists often employed the subjects and compositional gambits of pre-Perry prints. Hasui Kawase’s portrayal of two women at a pond is in a Western realist mode, without the stylization or exaggerated perspective of earlier Japanese prints. But the way the figures are framed by plants in the foreground is a typical Edo-period arrangement. Much like the photographers in the adjacent show, these printmakers used new techniques to depict a Japan that had changed, yet retained aspects of the old.
If you go
Japan Modern: Prints in the Age of Photography,
Photography from the Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck Collection
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. freersackler.si.edu.
Dates: Through Jan. 21.