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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Friday, March 15, 2019

Woman Warrior: In celebration of Women’s History Month

Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), a Japanese Buddhist nun, is considered one of the most important female artists in Japan. Raised as the adopted daughter of the Otagaki family, she received the broad education typical of a samurai family.  She excelled at a great variety of arts, including calligraphy, poetry, the game of “go,” and multiple forms of martial arts.

Otagaki Rengetsu, Tea Bowl, glazed stoneware with incised calligraphy
Otagaki Rengetsu, Tea Bowl, Edo Period (1603–1868),
glazed stoneware with incised calligraphy
Tragedy struck many times in her life.  Starting around 1819, she lost at least four children at an early age, two husbands, two siblings, and finally, her adopted father in 1832. This led her to join the Chion’in Temple in Kyoto as a nun and take the name Rengetsu. Soon after the death of her father, she began to travel Japan and compose poetry, creating tea wares to help support herself. Though she quickly became famed for her works, she remained humble, often describing her work as clumsily done. Her poetry, painting, calligraphy, and pottery all have a distinctive directness that is free, unconventional, and elegant.

She was also an outspoken pacifist. During the Boshin War (1868-1869), the civil war between the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and the imperial court, she penned a long poem decrying Oshio Heihachiro for his rebellion against the emperor and wrote a shorter one addressing the general Shimazu Tadayoshi, who supported the court, urging restraint toward his rebellious countrymen.

--Eddie Ouano, Curatorial Intern, Asian Art Department

March 15, 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Travels with Hiroshige from a Technical Perspective

Utagawa Hiroshige, Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, from Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces
Utagawa Hiroshige,
Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, 1855,
woodblock print, ink and color on paper
The Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is renowned for the technical virtuosity he employed to create his woodblock series Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces (1853-56). Each print shows how the artist took advantage of new inks and advanced printing techniques to design the stunning images presented in the WAM exhibition Travels with Hiroshige.

Japanese woodblock print production is not a solitary effort, and Hiroshige’s fame rests on a complex collaboration of publisher, artist, block carvers, and printers. The skill of each was important to the final artwork.  After applying the artist’s drawing to a block of cherry wood, the carver created a key block by skillfully removing all the wood around the lines. The key block would then be inked and used to print black and white proofs. The artist used the proofs to indicate the colors and effects for each area. Most prints required the carving of ten or more additional blocks, one for each color.  Registration marks helped the printer keep the lines and colors in proper alignment.  Each block was re-inked between impressions and colors were printed one at a time.

The Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces series is particularly celebrated for its wide use of color gradations, called bokashi, which can be seen on every print.  After the background colors were printed, a gradation of color for certain areas was achieved by an extra step that reused the original color block: after washing the block, the printer applied the graded tint of pigment in selected areas.  This was done by hand with a moist brush that had been partially dipped in the pigment.  
Other techniques that were effectively used in the series include overprinting (one color over another), embossing, and the use of woodgrain to add texture.  In the latter, blocks with prominent grain patterns were selected and specially prepared to give the appearance of movement in monochrome areas such as the sea.

Visitors to Travels with Hiroshige will be stunned by the colors, especially the blues. The blue pigment used in this series revolutionized Japanese woodblock printing. Prussian or Berlin blue was accidently synthesized in a German laboratory in the early 1700s. The vivid blue pigment is stable, lightfast, and amenable to being mixed with other pigments. Before the arrival of Prussian blue in Japan in the 1820s, artists and print publishers used blue pigments derived from natural sources, such as indigo and dayflower petals. These vegetable dyes produced muted blues that fade dramatically when exposed to light. Imported Prussian blue made possible a wide range of intense and long-lasting blue hues. They were translucent and especially effective in expressing depth in water and atmospheric distance. The availability of the new blue pigment was a major factor in the development of landscape as an important subject in Japanese prints.

The print at top right shows printing gradations in the sky. Woodgrain adds movement to the water, and overprinting can be seen on the rocks and the whirlpools. A scene composed of mainly sky and water was made possible by the use of Prussian blue pigment.

--Susannah Baker, co-curator, Travels with Hiroshige

March 12, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

Endurance of an Idea

When I first stepped into the exhibition, Archaic Avant-Garde: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Horvitz Collection, I was struck by the physical power of the ceramic pots that were standing tall against the muted chartreuse walls. As I began to study each object, I immediately was reminded of this quote from the Minnesota potter, Samuel Johnson:
It’s a strange thing to adhere to an artistic lineage within a culture that celebrates novelty and independent genius. Yet, here I am, making jars using old techniques and referencing forms that my teacher and his teacher made before me. I don’t think it makes the work anachronistic or nostalgia, but rather reflects the endurance of an idea standing firm in its relationship to time and place.

Even as new technologies are being introduced to the ceramics field every day, these new-generation makers in the show still find a need to prolong their history using archaic techniques. I was visually struck by how the pots made in the last 60 years felt as if they had jumped out of the ancient kiln sites in Japan but also alluded to contemporary aesthetics. For example, Koichiro Isezaki’s Penguin #3 challenges the function of the vessel, yet the surface treatment maintains connections to the ancient techniques of the yakishime (unglazed stoneware) style of wood-firing. Because the culture in Japan continues to celebrate their ceramic history, these new and up-and-coming makers are able to intertwine individuality with old processes.

Each object in the show has an underlying historical context that can be traced back to various kiln site aesthetics. Some of the pots stand firm in the style of a specific kiln site while others show combined characteristics such as Shiro Tsujimura’s Stoneware Jar.  This particular object exhibits a traditional form that is common throughout Tokoname ware while also overlapping with the Shigaraki style of feldspar inclusions. Even though the object labels each name one artist, each object demonstrates a deep rooted collection of hands, minds, and history that is forever marked into the work.
As a maker, who also creates using wood-fired kilns like the potters in this show, I constantly turn back to look at various histories for inspiration in both formal processes and surface techniques. I believe sustaining culture through art provides education for new-generations of makers to understand the value of maintaining history in the present and in the future.

--Abby Nohai, Artist-in-Residence, Worcester Center for Crafts

Image caption:

Abby Nohai giving a talk to WAM docents at opening of Archaic Avant-Garde. Photo credit: Tom O’Malley.

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