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Sunday, Feb. 27, 2000

Artistic exchange leaves a rich legacy

"Yokohama does not improve on further acquaintance," wrote Isabella Bird in 1878. "It has a dead-alive look. . . . I long to get away into real Japan." She quickly left and went in search of authenticity, complete with its dangers and delights. Bird was a purist to the point of eccentricity, but most foreigners were content with the picture-postcard version. After all, daily life for early ex-patriates was difficult enough, with its severe climate, political tensions and food described as "fishy and vegetable abominations."

Such early impressions of Japan are captured in an interesting exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art. The exhibition covers a period of 40 years, from the opening of the port in 1859 until the concession ended in 1899. During this time, important new media arrived from abroad. Daguerreotypes, photography and printing methods such as lithography offered Japanese artists thrilling new realism, while oil painting suggested new textures, techniques and subjects for art.

"We wished to show the exchange between photography, paintings and prints, between East and West, and between the artists themselves," explained senior curator Kiyoko Sawatari. As a result, the exhibition ranges from souvenirs to fine art.

The exhibition opens with a small and lively selection of wooblock prints. Utagawa's "Westerners Shipping Cargo" is a bold composition where the vertical ships, horizontal masts and diagonal waves make a wonderfully active scene. Keeping these traditional images in mind, the next gallery shows the sudden impact of Western realism, especially in the paintings of Horyu Goseda.

Goseda developed a singular ability to paint photographlike portraits on silk, using traditional paints and inks. The bewhiskered Victorian gentleman dressed in garish formal hakama is probably a souvenir painted at his studio in Yokohama. Hosui Yamamoto copied the style in a sensitive portrait of a monk, but otherwise the style is disconcerting. Two visitors paused by a painting of a foreign boy, exclaimed "how unpleasant!" and hurried away.

Moving on to the foreign representations of Japan, there are paintings, sketches and photographs by local characters such as Charles Wirgman. Wirgman was a Special Correspondent for the Illustrated London News, sending back reports on the twilight years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Local and international power struggles sometimes resulted in violence against foreigners. One of the most notorious was the murder of Henry Richardson by samurai near Yokohama, and there are dramatic illustrations of both crime and punishment.

Early pictures of Yokohama show a small frontielike port, with clear views of Mount Fuji and a peaceful fishing bay. These glimpses of a vanished world are fascinating: messengers nearly naked in the summer heat, poor children in crumpled kimono, porters covered with tattoos. What did foreigners make of such people? Bird's first impressions were: "So ugly, yet so pleasant-looking. . . . The women so very small and tottering in their walk . . . I feel as if I had seen them all before, so like are they to their pictures on trays, fans and tea-pots."

Felix Beato and Baron von Stillfried-Ratenicz were among the earliest photographers. The documentary photographs of farm children, fortunetellers and so on are very interesting, while the pastiches, such as girls in awkward erotic poses, reflect Occidental dreams of the East. In counterpoint, there is an authentic portrait in pastels by a French lady, Marie Adelaide Baubry-Vaillant. Nothing much is known about the artist, but she has certainly captured the quiet atmosphere of a Japanese woman.

Producing souvenirs for foreigners was a good business for the Goseda family, and the silk painter's daughter, Yuko Watanabe, became wealthy selling prints of Japanese "types." Exhibit 173 shows her painting in the studio.

However, her brother's story is rather more poignant. Yoshimatsu Goseda's work illustrates the refinement of Western techniques, and includes two accomplished self-portraits in oils, painted at the ages of 13 and 23. The latter has a romantic air of neglect, but from its cracked surface Yoshimatsu's handsome young face glows with energy.

Yoshimatsu went to Paris in 1881, lost his money in some mysterious affair, and came back eight years later to find, like Rip van Winkle, he had missed his time. During his absence, the influential Seiki Kuroda had changed the direction of Japanese oil painting, following the lead of the British Pre-Raphaelites and French Impressionists. Yoshimatsu's sober palette and calm brushwork were no longer in style. Although he received commissions from the Imperial Household Agency, the promise so clearly shown in the early self-portraits never quite came to be. He ended his days teaching children in Yokohama.

Hosui Yamamoto was in a similar fix, if not worse. The poor man lost over 300 paintings at sea on the voyage back from France! Here, an extraordinary painting depicts the legend of the fisherman Urashima, who returns from the sea kingdom to find that time has moved on. The choice of story reflects the revival of interest in native subjects, as does the painting of "Shizuka Gozen" by Gusen Yamanouchi. His doomed lady in the boat on a misty morning recalls the atmospheric "Lady of Shalott" by Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse.

"Shizuka Gozen" is a most interesting mixture of East and West. It is painted in oils, but looks like watercolor. It is a folding screen, yet the composition is not suitable for folding. And the border is based on traditional brocade mounting, but painted like a European textile. Nevertheless, it is a fine painting, and sphinxlike, presents an enigma. How would Japanese oil painting have developed if it had not been overwhelmed by foreign influence?

We can see the sea-change quite clearly if we compare the easy charm of Ikunosuke Shirataki's little girl knitting, in the Impressionist style, with such challenging paintings as Watanabe's baby clutching a dragonfly, Hosui's sea legend and oil painting pioneer Yuichi Takahashi's powerful soldier-heroes.

The museum's Sawatari commented "These are the germs of real Japanese oil painting, but they were abandoned! Kuroda fixed its destiny. The next generation of artists cut their links with tradition and probably despised these early efforts. I feel much contemporary Japanese art is weak compared to other Asian art, because it has no deep roots from which to draw the water of life." Such is the force of destiny.

"Bakumatsu, Meiji no Yokohama Ten" at Yokohama Museum of Art until March 26. Closed Thursdays and March 21. For more information, call (045) 221-0300.

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