In the mid-1950s, nine female Japanese printmakers formed a group to show their work, which was experimental even in the "Mad Men"-type art world of postwar Japan.
For the next three decades their work was caught between the American reverence for traditional Japanese woodblock printing and the wild and crazy Japanese avant-garde.
Now Jeannie Kenmotsu, the Portland Art Museum's acting Curator of Asian Art, has collected 35 prints from Japan's first printmaking society for women artists, the Joryu Hanga Kyokai, or the Women's Print Association. The show, curated by Kenmotsu, running through April 11, 2021 at the Portland Art Museum, is subtitled "Japan's Women Printmakers."
The nine founders staged exhibitions in Japan and the United States, culminating in a hit show in New York City in 1965. The works range from the quiet, put-a-bird-on-it-style etchings of Minami Keiko
to the groovy, Op Art neo-minimalism Yoshida Chizuko.
The latter has violet ink caught between the embossed waves of white paper, which resemble the grooved sand of a beach as the tide retreats. That 1968 work is in contrast to the postcard image for the show, Chizuko's 1960 color woodblock print "Jama Masjid."
Jama Masjid is a mosque that Chizuko saw on her world travels with her husband. The bold abstraction, with its splatters and jostling shapes, has an energy to it unlike the direction her later prints took.
Chizuko grew up as a dancer, and music and dance play a role in a lot of her work. "You can see the way she thinks about translating impressions and experiences into visual form," Konmetsu told the Tribune. "This organic quality is in a lot of her work, even some of her later work that gets more minimalist."
Chizuko's later works were influenced by working with lithographic printer Arthur Flory when he visited Japan. The wavy paper of "Violet in a White Layer" is so thick she had to use a press to manipulate it.
These female printmakers formed the Women's Print Association for solidarity, so they could exchange ideas and hold exhibitions together, rather than as a "school" of artists with a shared aesthetic or manifesto.
They were mostly using woodblock printing and etchings colored with aquatints. Some were painters first and printmakers second. Some were mothers and were influenced by their husbands. There were 25 artist in the group over the decade.
Chizuko was an avant-garde painter who had not made any prints when she married into a family of artists when she wed her husband, Hodaka. His was an established printmaking family, including Yoshida Hiroshi, a beloved Japanese printmaker from the first half of the 20th century. They shared a studio and worked side by side, and Hodaka experimented with photo engraving in his woodblock prints, as did Chizuko in the 1970s
"So those materials must have been right at hand in the studio, and I have to think that played a role," Kenmotsu said.
Tokyo native and action painter Enokido Maki's etchings look like octopus suckers and cross-sections of nautilus shells. Her colors are strong, her blacks are deep. The work is labor intensive, and she may have made multiple imprints with the plates to bring in all her colors.
Kenmotsu sees the show not as an intervention, but "recovering some lost history." She had the freedom of the Portland Art Museum's Gilkey Collection of prints to make it happen.
Iwami Reika has several pieces which use natural forms, such as driftwood, the sea, seaweed, the moon, but she also has one standout print that looks like high modernist abstraction. The elements look like typographical elements, such as punctuation and serifs (the little overhangs on certain fonts). The exhibition strives to show variety and regression within a few images.
The Japanese avant-garde in printmaking included the Hi-Red Center group, the Gutai Group, and the Bokujinkai (People of the Ink Society), which was associated with Informel in Europe.
Other faces of the Japanese avant-garde include Mono-ha ("art of things"), although the best-known face in the West probably was Fluxus artist Yoko Ono, who married The Beatles' John Lennon.
These artists were much less extroverted or in the public eye. The exhibition includes photos of them meeting in the 1960s, looking as neat and tidy as office workers. Indeed, they often were patronized by the male art world as "mamasan" printers or mommy artists.
But they proved influential.
Kenmotsu told the Tribune: "I absolutely think they were pushing boundaries for Japan and for women. There's a way to be avant-garde in the anointed art world, and this was not the group who art history has brought you. I think for printmakers, there are other ways to push the envelope."
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