Ukiyo-e: Dead Relics and the City

Recently, I attended an exhibition called The Japanese Woodblock Print: An Extension of the Impermanent. Organized by the Idaho Falls Arts Council, it has been traveling around this region of the American Northwest since 2012. Comprising ukiyo-e prints from the Louden Collection, the exhibition spans late 18th-mid-20th centuries focusing on certain oft-encountered subjects: courtesans, kabuki-theater actors and, of course, Nature, and features some of the most renowned masters of this genre, such as Hiroshi Yoshida, Kunisada, and Kuniyoshi, among others. 

Not having been to a museum since visiting London last October, I've been kind of starved for the so-called "high-culture" setting of one. Up until this visit, I was under the impression that I'd have to travel to the nearest metropolis in Canada, five hours away, in order to "get my fix." 

Not so. In that sense, this was a pleasant surprise.

Koson Ohara, Willow Bridge (1927)

Yet the latter also emphasizes my continued struggle with the City vs. the Town. On the one hand, the reasons for my living in a small town in the last two and a half years include the realization that, in many ways, large urban areas are "black holes," and these "black holes" are becoming less and less livable in the post-industrial age. 

Paul Jacoulet, Le Nid "Corree" (1941)

This is my favorite piece, which does not seem to be included in the catalogue.

There is plenty of literature to choose from, particularly from the early 20th century, that best expresses the lamentation of losing a simpler, less atomized, and truly rooted way of life. For instance, in the German language, Siegfried Kracauer is, perhaps, one of the most lyrical with his Salaried Masses (1930):

In the Luna Park, of an evening, a fountain is sometimes displayed illuminated by Bengal Lights. Cones of red, yellow and green light, continually recreated, flee into the darkness. When the splendor is gone, it turns out to have come from the wretched cartilaginous structure of a few little pipes. The fountain resembles the life of many employees. From its wretchedness it escapes into distraction, lets itself be illuminated with Bengal lights and, unmindful of its origin, dissolves into the nocturnal void.

Oswald Spengler, in the Decline of the West  (1918, 1923), is one of the most scathing:

Long, long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.

On the other hand, it is (obviously) cities that house the best of the arts, though, of course, many (most) exemplars are no more than deader-than-dead relics rather than living traditions. So what feels like a bit of hypocrisy on my part—criticizing, yet yearning for the City—reveals the limits of one's ability to escape the Modern structure of one's consciousness. 

My sense of unease seems to link up with the theme of this exhibition, i.e., prolonging the impermanent. Transience is a central subject in the philosophy of art, quite evident in traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Yet by recording these mutable and brief moments, it was as if their creators extended the longevity of a single flash in time—ravens suddenly appearing out of the snow fog—indefinitely. Thus, these dead relics (ukiyo-e production was most active roughly between the 17-19th centuries) become incorruptibles

Takahashi Hiroaki, Rural Dance at the Feast of Lanterns (1927)

Of course, the latter also makes sense to me in another way: extending the moment or highlighting its impermanence is one of my goals in nature-and-wildlife photography.