PROVO In 1639, Japan shuttered its borders for nearly 200 years, expelling foreigners and forbidding its residents to leave.
That move ushered in a two-century period of peace as the country developed a culture devoid of outside influences. It also created a nation of mystery.
So when Japan opened up to trade with the West in 1854, one of the first glimpses of this secret world came through its art, said Paul Anderson, curator of special exhibitions at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
Anderson is designing an exhibition of Japanese woodblock art, "Windows on a Hidden World: Japanese Woodblock Prints from the BYU Museum of Art Collection."
Beginning in the late 1700s, the Japanese began developing woodblock art, printing thousands of multicolored prints called ukiyo-e (oo-key-yo-eh). The simple, yet elegant prints excited European and American artists, who began collecting them during the impressionism movement beginning in the 1860s. Among the avid collectors was J. Alden Weir, father-in-law of artist Mahonri Young, a grandson of Brigham Young.
Weir was a leading American impressionist painter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he collected most of his prints in New York in the 1890s. The BYU Museum of Art acquired them from Young's estate about 50 years ago.
Putting the exhibition together is especially exciting for Anderson because he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Japan.
The fragile prints were cleaned and stabilized at the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts in Denver and returned to BYU for the exhibit, which opens Sept. 26 and runs through Jan. 17.
The museum has selected 63 classic prints for the exhibition out of the approximately 100 that it has, includ-
ing Geisha girls and other women, famous Japanese actors (all were men during the period between 1760 and 1860), and the shift to landscapes that occurred about 1830.
Each color of the intricate woodcuts represents a different wood block. Some pictures required as many as 20 blocks, each precisely lined up and registered to produce the final print.
A picture began as a painting by an artist, who then turned it over to a carver to make the blocks. It then went to a printer to reproduce hundreds of copies, which were then sold to the middle class, "while the whole thing was probably bankrolled by a publisher," Anderson said.
Many of the prints were the souvenir posters of their day and represented symbolism popular in the culture. When trade opened and exposed them to the West, the geometry and lack of shadows in the art appealed to the impressionist painters of Europe, Anderson said.
"They were fascinated by the exoticism and mystery," he said.
"The development of woodblock printing is connected with the development of popular culture in Japan," Anderson said. "Japan changed dramatically during the 18th and early 19th centuries from an agrarian feudal nation to a country with several thriving cities and a prosperous merchant class. A new urban culture developed, including popular theater, romantic and comic novels and new visual art forms including woodblock prints of entertainers, actors, rural and urban scenes and dramatic landscapes."
Among the images is the "great wave" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), which has been reproduced many times over the past century and a half and is a popular image among surfers.
If you go ...
What: Windows on a Hidden World: Japanese Woodblock Prints from the BYU Museum of Art Collection
Where: BYU Museum of Art, Provo
When: Sept. 26-Jan. 17; museum hours are Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., and Saturdays, noon-5 p.m.
How much: Free
E-mail: [email protected]