Japanese prints capturing country's evolution come to life at SF's Legion of Honor exhibit

The exhibit is now open and runs through mid-August

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Sunday, April 7, 2024
Japanese prints come to life at SF's Legion of Honor exhibit
A new exhibit opening at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco links an art form dating back to the era of Samurai to popular modern art, like anime.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The technique may be ancient. But the images at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum are actually a fast forward ride through centuries of change. The exhibit is titled, Japanese Prints in Transition, From the Floating World to the Modern World.

And curator Lauren Palmor says the discipline required to make the woodblock prints is the magic behind the art.

"But what I find most exciting is you can see just how precise the color printing has to be to in order to make each color line up perfectly. Wherever you see a different color on this print that means a completely different block was carved to match. And sometimes there were ten blocks that went into a print, sometimes 20 or more," she explains.

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The centuries-old technique is still in use today. And it has the power to transport. From the ancient EDO period of the Samurai through the amazing flight of fancy touched off by 19th century Western contact.

"When prints began to incorporate an interest in new forms of transportation, hot air balloons, locomotives, steamships. We see an interest in new fashions from the West, crinoline, skirts and Western style military uniforms. And these developments take place in rapid at a rapid pace. Japan changes quite quickly," Palmor adds.

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A driving sense of movement captured in perhaps the era's most famous print, The Great Wave. The work is on display for the first time in a decade because of its delicate colors. But the exhibit's motion sweeps into our own modern era with social commentary like noting America's fast-food culture saturating Japan.

Its creator, artist Masami Teraoka uses the wood block form to capture old and new.

"I started to realize, oh yeah, this country, you know, and people are really interested in our ethnic background and their cultures. So I sort of, since I love print so much that maybe this is the way I should, you know, express myself as my favorite vocabulary," says Teraoka.

The style is even credited with influencing popular Japanese anime. And while the journey is sweeping, the sense of style is enduring.

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A Japan that's constantly evolving, surrounded by tradition.

The exhibit opened this weekend and runs through mid-August. You can learn more here.

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