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Through Rustling Grasses: Nature in the Japanese Print


The theme of nature runs through all the prints in this exhibition to offer a panorama of the styles and concerns that have captivated artists since the mid-1700s. All of the prints depict some aspect of the natural world, be it a landscape, a close-up of flora and fauna, or an interpretation of earthen elements, and contain at most only a trace of human presence.

In Japan, nature can turn violent, inflicting disaster on the inhabitants of the archipelago that stretches from the rugged north with its long, bone-chilling winters to the tropical south pelted each year by drenching typhoons. Earthquakes, fires, volcanoes, droughts and storms are the ecological realities that Japanese society has confronted constantly in its struggle to maintain its place in the natural scheme.

And yet, a gentler perception of nature has informed Japanese art since antiquity. The permutations of atmosphere contrasted against the unchanging structures of the land, the transience of seasonal foliage and the cycle of seasons have served as sources of visual poetry with deep spiritual resonance. From Japan's earliest cultural expressions, people saw in the beauty of nature apt symbols of a universal order, its moods and evanescence reflecting the impermanence of human existence. In nature, there is birth and flowering followed by fading and decay. By referring to nature, artists and poets have expressed their profound emotions about the brevity of life and all its passing stages, finding their daily natural surroundings apt metaphors for contemplating the constancy of change.

It is often in the delicate, the intimate, and the gentle that this symbolic sense of nature takes form. The prints in this exhibition illustrate the major approaches print artists have taken in their conceptions of nature themes, ranging from detailed views of living creatures to evocative depictions of landscape. Among these portrayals of nature are the genre of bird-and-flower painting, which took root in Japan after its development in China, and was adapted to woodblock printing in the 1700s. Not only were the scenes appreciated for their charm and beauty, they also acknowledged the scientific interest in the observed world as well as the intellectual interest in Chinese arts. Likewise, the surge of fascination with scenery from around the country during the early 1800s stemmed from the popularity of travel and merged with layers of literary association that particular locales had acquired over centuries of poetic reference. Even in the 20th century, the changing, built environment of Japan as it transformed into a modern state did not diminish these affinities with nature. Instead, printmakers experimented with international artistic trends as well as traditional printmaking techniques to revivify a reverence for the natural touch in explorations of material, form, and color. Throughout, there is the underlying sense that the unsullied natural environment inspires harmony while offering refuge from the crowded din of the workaday world.

All prints in the exhibition are drawn from the Museum's permanent collection.

Curated by Lynn Katsumoto

Exhibition Title

Through Rustling Grasses: Nature in the Japanese Print



Curated by

Lynn Katsumoto

Organized by

Portland Art Museum

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