18 May - 8 September 2019

Masters of Japanese prints: Nature and seasons

Japan's four distinct seasons have been a source of inspiration to artists and poets for hundreds of years.

In these woodblock prints from Bristol’s collection plants, animals and weather act as powerful symbols of seasonal change.

When the prints were first made, Japanese customers would have understood how these natural motifs linked to local beliefs and Japan’s main religions of Shinto and Buddhism.

Educated people would have gained further pleasure from reading the poems inscribed on many of the prints and spotting visual references to classical Japanese novels and poetry.

This exhibition is the third of three showcasing Bristol Museum & Art Gallery’s Japanese woodblock prints, one of the top five regional collections in the UK.

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This exhibition was developed with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund. Thank you to our Exhibition Sponsor Inside Japan.

Spring

Paintings of the four seasons, shiki-e, became popular at the Japanese court during the Heian period (794-1185), alongside a vogue for composing waka, poetry in Japanese. Artists and poets used seasonal references in both art forms to convey mood and emotions.

Since the Heian period, flowering cherry trees have been a key symbol of spring in Japan. People arranged special flower viewing parties, hanami, to revel in the beauty of the blossom.

Fallen cherry flowers were metaphors for fading beauty or the death of warriors. A delight in flower blossom, tinged with sadness at its fleeting nature, chimed with Buddhist beliefs about the transience of life.

Paintings of the four seasons, shiki-e, became popular at the Japanese court during the Heian period (794-1185), alongside a vogue for composing waka, poetry in Japanese. Artists and poets used seasonal references in both art forms to convey mood and emotions.

Since the Heian period, flowering cherry trees have been a key symbol of spring in Japan. People arranged special flower viewing parties, hanami, to revel in the beauty of the blossom.

Fallen cherry flowers were metaphors for fading beauty or the death of warriors. A delight in flower blossom, tinged with sadness at its fleeting nature, chimed with Buddhist beliefs about the transience of life.

Japanese print of two figures dressed in traditional clothes standing in a garden.

Kiyomizu Komachi, 1810 by Eishōsai Choki (active 1786–1810)

Japanese print of two women dressed in traditional clothes, one standing, one kneeling.

Two women in the Spring, 1790–1801 by Chōkōsai Eisho (active 1790s–1801)

Japanese print of a woman dressed in traditional clothes, she sits by a window with blossom outside, and reads a long scroll of paper, a cat playfully grabs the paper from under the bench.

Courtesan reading a letter, 1765–80 by Torii Kiyomitsu I (1735–85)

Japanese print of a person dressed in elaborate traditional clothes walking among the cherry blossom.

Cherry blossom, 1843–45 by Utagawa Yoshitora (active 1836–1887)

Japanese print of a river scene, two men punt their barge down the river, people walk along the banks through the cherry trees.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Arashiyama, 1834 by Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858)

Japanese print showing a large Japanese temple with many small figures dressed in traditional costume walking in the grounds.

Tōeizan Temple at Ueno, 1835–38 by Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858)

Japanese print of a large group of children and adult, all dressed in the same traditional clothes and holding umbrellas, they walk amongst the trees, picnickers sit under the trees in the background.

Cherry-blossom viewing at Asuka Hill, 1853 by Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826–69)

Japanese print of a couple dressed in traditional clothes, the woman has her eyes covered and is looking for the man partly hidden behind a large open umbrella.

Hide and Seek, about 1800-1820 by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Japanese print of three women in traditional clothes, they hold their skirts up as they walk through water, two are barefoot, one wears platform shoes, the bank behind has flowers on it.

The Ide Jewel River, a Famous Place in Yamashiro Province, 1766–67 by Suzuki Harunobu (1725–70)

Japanese print of a garden scene. People, dressed in traditional clothes stroll or sit on platforms next to displays of hanging wisteria, steps lead up to a grand building behind.

Wisteria at Kameido Tenjin Shrine, 1839–42 by Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858)

Summer

Woodblock prints of summer feature sultry days and nights, monsoon rain and typhoons. Print customers would enjoy seeing scenes of picnics in the evening cool or references to summer festivals such as Boy’s Day and Tanabata, the romantic Star Festival.

The summer months could be times of danger when disease spread quickly because of the heat. In this season symbols of strength like carp were popular as were plants with medicinal properties such as iris and peony.

Autumn

A full moon and red maple leaves are key symbols of autumn in Japan. People would arrange special excursions to view the temporary brilliance of each. This joyful activity, like cherry blossom viewing, is also a reminder of the briefness of life. Autumn with its fading foliage is linked with old age and infused with melancholy.

Print designs for this season often focus on the harvest, incorporating ancient Shinto beliefs about Inari, the god of rice, and his fox messengers. A group of plants called The Seven Grasses of Autumn is another common symbol of autumn.

Winter

Woodblock prints of winter celebrate the fleeting beauty of snow, one of the Three Beauties of Nature, ‘snow, moon and flowers’.

Another popular trio, from Chinese art, is the Three Friends of Winter, ‘pine, bamboo and plum’, symbols of long life, endurance and rebirth.

New Year customs feature strongly in Japanese prints of winter. Designs illustrate some of the rituals of Shinto, the original religion of Japan.

Birds and flowers, insects and other animals

The artistic tradition of painting birds with flowers originated in China. Japanese artists developed conventions of pairing particular birds and flowers which became symbols of the turning seasons. Individual birds and flowers often have their own symbolic meanings too.

Woodblock prints of insects are close-up studies of the natural world. Like birds and flowers, images of insects act as visual short-hand to evoke the sounds and emotions of particular seasons.

Many birds and animals, including the popular koi carp and macaque monkey here, act as metaphors for human characteristics.

Image of the pages of an open Japanese book showing a series of six motifs including flowers and bamboo shoots.

Japanese pattern book, 1936

Forms for the design of ground patterns, 1884
Edited by Takizawa Kiyoshi, engraved by Ando Riutaro, published by Matsuzaki Hanzo

This is a pattern book for the design of textiles and other objects. Customers could choose motifs to adorn their belongings.
From right to left the designs are: bamboo plants – linked with winter; waterwheels symbolising harmony with nature; wild carnation – an autumn plant; roundels with The Seven Grasses of Autumn; lucky double gourds; and plum, bamboo and pine needles – The Three Friends of Winter. Purchased 1974, Mb5002

Previously

Life in the city

Thank you to everyone who donated to the Japanese Prints conservation appeal, without whom display of this work would not have been possible.

With particular thanks to Simon Baker, John and Susan Hart, Shelagh Cutner, Roger Feneley, The Davidson Charitable Trust, Sir James and Lady Virginia Tidmarsh, Katherine Croft, Dr and Mrs Hibberd, as well as the many Friends of Bristol Art Gallery members and Bristol Museums Development Trust donors who supported the appeal and exhibition.

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