20th April – 25th June 2021
Open by appointment
ESH Gallery is pleased to present the exhibition “JAPANORAMA. Ukiyo-e Today”, the first group show the gallery dedicates to Japanese prints.
The exhibition will offer the public the opportunity to find out the traditional art of ukiyo-e through modern images of some of the most famous music icons of the 20th century. By drawing on the iconographic universe of music – from David Bowie to Kiss, passing through the metal notes of Iron Maiden – the prints in the exhibition, produced in limited edition and preserving the original technique of the Japanese masters, allow us to approach an art form as ancient as it is close to contemporary taste.
The project was created in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Project, founded by Yuka Mitsui, owner of the self-titled agency specialising in music rights and a Japanese culture enthusiast. Driven by the desire to pass on Japanese art and tradition to the younger generations and to spread knowledge abroad, Mitsui contributed to the creation of a project to support Japanese artists and craftsmen committed to the preservation of one of the most traditional art from the Rising Sun, ukiyo-e.
Ukiyo-e is a genre of artistic printmaking on paper which flourished in Japan between the 17th and 20th centuries. The term, which is generally translated as “images of the floating world”, refers to the carefree lifestyle of the rising middle class in the cities of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. The art of ukiyo-e was a reflection of an era in which people wanted to enjoy earthly pleasures, a “floating” world because it presupposed a frivolous way of life, close to ephemeral goods.
For the first century of production the subjects were almost always scenes from daily life: travel, samurai warriors and beautiful women. Motifs that allowed young artists to delight in studying graceful poses, details in the decorations and realistic representations of the human figure. Towards the middle of the 19th century there was a return to nature as the main subject of prints, especially with Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Ukiyo-e Project since 2014 has been making prints dedicated to pop icons and modern bands for which Japanese culture has been a fundamental source of inspiration.
ESH Gallery will present three series of woodblock prints dedicated to David Bowie, Kiss and Iron Maiden. Each print, in a limited edition of 200 copies, is the result of a collaboration between an illustrator, a woodcarver and a printer, which allows the memory of the master craftsmen to be preserved.
The first series on show is dedicated to the icon David Bowie, known not only for his musical successes but also for the eccentric image steeped in Japanese references that built his international character.
In particular, after his collaboration with Kansai Yamamoto, avant-garde designer who created the artist’s alter ego Ziggy Sturdust, Bowie began to wear eccentric clothes like in Japanese kabuki theatre. He also wore the bold and flashy make-up learnt by the kabuki actors, including the famous lightning bolt symbol on his face.
The two prints are inspired by the covers of Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane.
In the first one, Bowie is portrayed as a famous illusionist from the Edo period, a figure close to the showman’s attitude as an entertainer. He wears a kimono and sits next to a huge animal that takes the form of a powerful dragon from early ukiyo-e. In the second one, Bowie is presented as a mystical and powerful character: imposing in the centre of the print with his fixed gaze like the legendary snake charmer Kidomaru, a legendary character from Japanese popular iconography.
The Japanese inspiration is also clear in the prints dedicated to Kiss, the first to be produced and of which a limited series of 100 copies is signed by the band itself. The band members appear transformed into kabuki actors and samurai warriors, wearing the traditional kimono, their faces painted white and their make-up exaggeratedly bright.
In the series inspired by Iron Maiden, however, the parallelism between the band’s aesthetic features and the references to Japan is even more pronounced.
If in the former, the band’s mascot is represented as an evil and bloody samurai armed with a katana, in the latter the call of ancient iconography is even more evident.
Creepy Eddie, with his usual demonic appearance, observes himself in a mirror holding the mask of an elegant geisha: a tribute to a legend from the Edo period which tells of the meeting of a young man with the most beautiful courtesan of Yoshiwara. After seeing the reflection of the woman in the mirror, the man realises that it is in fact a mask. On either side of the work are symbols of the band, from the famous iron maiden to the translation of the band’s name in Japanese ideograms.
The exhibition will be enriched by the recent series dedicated to contemporary views of Tokyo’s Tsukuda district where ancient Edo and modernity coexist, by original woodblock prints and by sequential prints illustrating the production process of the prints.