‘Pictures of the floating world’
James Snidle gallery overflows with Japanese woodblock prints
Chico, CA 95928
The Japanese woodblock print collection currently showing at the James Snidle Gallery is gorgeous.
What’s not to like about dozens and dozens of colorful 19th-century ukiyo-e prints—including some highly famous ones such as Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”? The prints are plastered floor-to-ceiling on every wall in the main gallery room and decorate the adjoining room, foyer and kitchen of the gallery as well. Oh, and then there’s the “overflow” of hundreds more beautiful prints piled into a floor rack, filing-cabinet-style, for sensuous perusal just in case you’re craving more.
Gallery manager Dean Willson has organized the ukiyo-e—or “pictures of the floating world”—prints from Snidle’s personal collection into an arrangement that is, in his words, “aesthetically pleasing.” Willson provided me with a list of names of featured ukiyo-e artists—Hokusai, Hiroshige, Chikanobu, Kuniyoshi, and so on—but the prints in the collection are not identified by title or artist’s name. In English, anyway.
I decided to make a second visit with my friend Shigemi Minetaka, who reads Japanese and used to work as a tour guide in her native Japan.
We walked up to the large, five-panel (curiously, unframed) print in the center of the west wall of the main room, and Minetaka instantly started shedding light on what was depicted in the delicately embossed piece of a central female figure surrounded by kimono-clad female attendants. A wedding, she said, pointing out a stack of three red sake cups and some fancily wrapped gifts. She identified it as part of a series of prints titled “Chiyoda no Oh-oku” (“The Ladies of the Chiyoda Palace”), by late-19th/early-20th-century “Meiji period” artist Toyohara Chikanobu.
Referring to another Chikanobu print, of a woman learning to play the koto from a female teacher, Minetaka said simply of the student: “Same wife as the one over there,” pointing across the room to the five-panel Chikanobu print.
With her guidance, I got to where I was able to read the name of famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in Japanese characters. Hiroshige’s work is well-represented in the Snidle show, including pieces from his “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” and “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido.”
I also learned a lot about Japanese history. Edo is the former name of Tokyo, and the Tokaido, as Minetaka described it, was “the longest highway that the [Japanese] government made during the Edo era connecting Tokyo—or Edo—and Kyoto.”
A black-framed Hiroshige depicts a scene from the Chushingura, a well-known tale of the Forty-seven Ronin (or Forty-seven Samurai) who avenged the death of their master.
Some prints picture Asakusa, a popular temple in Edo; some show kabuki actors; many are landscape scenes and pictures of bijinga (“beautiful women”), as was typical of ukiyo-e. Bijinga master Kitagawa Utamaro’s prints are some of the many piled into the gallery’s filing rack—I’d love to see some of them on display.
Also, hiding on a table in the room between the main room and the kitchen is Hokusai’s lovely (but small) “Sanka haku” (“Rainstorm Beneath the Summit”), from his popular “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series created in the early 1800s.
There are a couple of prints, by an artist whose name Shigemi couldn’t decipher, picturing scenes from Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel Tale of the Genji, and another very interesting print by an unidentifiable artist of a man appearing to fight off a group of tengu (literally “heavenly dogs”), or supernatural creatures popular in Japanese folklore.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have your own Japanese tour guide, do a little Wikipedia study before you go and you’ll be armed with enough information to get into some depth at this exhibition. Or, just go and enjoy an aesthetically pleasing experience. Guaranteed.