For those not familiar with the art of Japanese woodblock prints, it might be easy to walk through the White Lotus Gallery's new exhibit, admire the finesse of the finely drawn lines of the faces and the intricate patterns and vivid colors of the clothing and backgrounds, and think that's it.
But it's not.
The new show not only includes 35 or so works by several 19th century masters of Japanese woodblock art, it also represents several major divisions of the genre that clearly show the breadth of styles and stories the art form represents.
The Japanese term for the woodblock art, ukiyo-e, means "pictures of the floating world," embodying the Buddhist concept of impermanence. It originated in observations of the transience of nature, such as the short life of cherry blossoms and phases of the moon, but it also came to encompass the fleeting pleasures of human activities and amusements.
"Ukiyo-e is the idea that everything is always changing and that people should enjoy the moment and live for the present," gallery manager Claudia Ponton said.
"As the merchant class became more prominent in Japan, the woodblock prints became used more to depict the pleasure quarter - kabuki theater, beautiful women and courtesan society."
All three subjects are represented in the show, in works collected through several decades by gallery director Hue-Ping Lin.
The collection includes pieces by Utagawa Kunisada, Toyohara Chikanobu and Toyohara Kunichika, three of the most accomplished woodblock artists of 19th century Japan.
Many are offered for sale.
From kabuki to haiku
Kabuki has been a popular subject of Japanese woodblock prints since its inception in the early 1600s.
It began in the Imperial Court as dance and drama performed only by women, then extended to teahouses, where it became associated with prostitution.
But the form quickly evolved into more drama than dance and eventually became a male-only performance, characterized by stylized theatrical sets and heavy white makeup that obscured facial expression.
The prints from the kabuki theater "were not considered high art to the Japanese at the time, and it would have been mostly the merchant class that would have collected them," Ponton said.
However, once Japanese culture was open to Western Europe in the 1850s, "There was a craze for all things Japanese, and Japanese art had a huge impact on the Impressionist artists in Europe," she said.
With its masculine faces and figures and theatrical settings, the kabuki art in the White Lotus show is easily distinguished from the bijin-ga, or "beautiful person picture" that makes up another segment of the display.
In addition to prints of military battles and kabuki, Chikanobu, who lived from 1838 to 1912, also was known as a master of bijin-ga. He created a series of woodblock prints that show the evolution of Japanese female beauty through time, but like kabuki art, not in terms of facial expression or features but in coiffeur and fashion.
"Japanese culture traditionally did not stress individuality in faces but placed more emphasis on textiles and landscape," Ponton said.
Artist Kunisada, who lived from 1786 to 1865, departed to a degree from that tradition, however, creating a series of woodblock prints under the title, "Famous Women From History."
One he portrayed was Kaga no Chiyo, born in 1703 and considered among the most accomplished of haiku poets.
The loyal servant
Kunisada also created a triptych - an elongated print in three panels - depicting a scene from "The Tale of Genji."
The 11th century story by woman writer Murasaki Shikibu is variously called the first novel, first modern novel or first psychological novel. Translated into modern languages in the early 20th century, it has become a classic.
However, the most intriguing "backstory" in the exhibit - suitable for opera - probably belongs to the print of the maidservant Ohatsu, who avenges the death of her mistress, Onoe, bullied to the point of suicide by Iwafuji, a jealous and powerful lady-in-waiting in their samurai community.
For Ohatsu's loyalty, the samurai leader gives her the name "Onoe" and her dead mistress's position in the household.
The print portrays Ohatsu in a fury of anguish, her mistress' suicide note clenched between her teeth as she cleans the blade of her samurai sword.
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19th Century Japanese Woodblock Prints
When: Saturday through Feb. 28
Where: White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette St.
Hours: From 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday