Lessons of the Cherry Blossoms At Norton Simon Museum

Pick of the Week for May 29th, 2012

Good things come in small packages. The best example of this bon mot is an intimate exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum titled Lessons of the Cherry Blossom. A scant 16 color woodblock prints are on the display in a room commensurately intimate. But no more space nor examples are needed to deliver a peaceful aesthetic punch.

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849) Bridges at the Mouth of the Aji River, Tempozan, Settsu Province, from the Rare Views of Famous Bridges in All the Provinces series, 1827–1830 Color woodblock print, horizontal ōban Norton Simon Museum Gift of Barbara Steele Williams, 1967

The topic of Cherry Blossoms acts as a convenient red thread. A symbol of the ephemerality of youth, the cherry blossom is also a nifty index to the artificiality of urban design and the marriage of city and nature. Much like the Palm trees here in Southern California, the Cherry blossoms most witnessed are not indigenous to the environment in which they are appreciated.

Two elements are particularly worth mentioning, both about process. Woodblock printing is a difficult medium. It doesn’t have the immediacy of the drawn line like Lithography. What it does offer though are approximations of watercolor’s saturation into the paper. Each print also carries a faint but unmistakable DNA of nature in the grain of the wood used to make the print. This grain can be terrifically seen in Hiroshige’s Noto Province, Waterfall Bay print from 1856. The bleed of dark blue to the white of the paper in the sky has vertical striations that snap into focus as wood grain. So the image of nature/landscape contains indexes to nature beyond mere representation.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858) Noto Province, Waterfall Bay, from the Famous Views of the (Sixty-odd) Provinces series, 1856 Color woodblock print, vertical ōban Norton Simon Museum Gift of Barbara Steele Williams, 1967

If one’s curious about process, a fantastic accordion book from the 20th century and measuring in at 4 x 6 inches, is partially revealed in a plexiglass vitrine which details the process. Each page bears a single imprint of each color layer and thus a route to the making of the work. The color woodblock prints in the exhibition appear so fully formed and integrated. This revelatory book heightens the pleasure by helping you understand the painstaking process involved to create a seamless image. I personally yearned to see the entire book unfurled. But leaving any exhibition wanting more is always a good thing.

Lessons of the Cherry Blossom: Japanese Woodblock Prints at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasedena continues through September 3rd, 2012.

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, May 29th, 2012




also by Mario M. Muller

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