CHIKANOBU: Modernity and Nostalgia

by Bruce A. Coats

It started with a cat named Yoshitoshi.

In the autumn of 1993, Scripps College held an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). A group of 60 prints were borrowed from Fred and Estelle Marer of Los Angeles, who were already well known to the College as collectors of American ceramics.The Yoshitoshi exhibit was held at the Clark Humanities Museum in conjunction with an art history class on Japanese prints. Dr. and Mrs.William Ballard visited the show, carrying with them a cloth-bound album. After carefully viewing the Yoshitoshi prints, they told Mrs. Nancy Burson, the humanities secretary, that their cat was named Yoshitoshi. Then they inquired if Scripps College might be interested in the album they had brought of 125 Yoshitoshi and Chikanobu prints.

When this generous donation was announced, the Marers were so impressed with the Ballards’ gift that they contributed more than 200 Japanese prints to Scripps, including the Yoshitoshi works that had been on loan. From these two donors, Scripps received 105 Chikanobu prints in 1993, and the decision was made to exhibit and publish these works. Over the last 13 years, the Chikanobu prints have been shown frequently in classes and exhibited on campus, but now these works are part of an exhibition that will tour the U.S. and Japan, accompanied by a catalog [written by Professor Coats] that surveys the career of Yosho Chikanobu (1838-1912).

Chikanobu was one of the most prolific artists of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), creating the designs for several thousand woodblock prints and illustrated books. His elaborately detailed full color prints, called nishiki-e or “brocade prints,” documented current events in Japan as the country rapidly modernized in the 1870-80s and depicted contemporary and historical figures as well as kabuki actors and legendary characters.

Chikanobu came from a samurai background and was involved in several battles in the 1860s as the military government of the shogun was replaced by a new imperial bureaucracy— Chikanobu was on the losing side! He was captured, released, captured again, and jailed for his loyal support of the old regime. Eventually, he was allowed to resume his interests in art and began to produce print designs in the mid-1870s.

At first, Chikanobu was an advocate of Westernization, depicting Japanese women in the latest French fashions and celebrating the imperial family and their efforts to modernize the government and society. However, by the late 1880s he and his audience were becoming dismayed bythe rapid changes taking place in Tokyo and were increasingly nostalgic about the lost world of the shogun.Throughout the 1890s, Chikanobu produced single sheet prints, diptychs and triptychs, which promoted traditional values and highlighted aspects of Japanese culture that were being forgotten. He created prints about filial piety and neighborhood festivals to provide an alternative to what many saw as the deterioration of Japanese society caused by imported ideas and modern methods. Chikanobu’s last works in the early years of the 20th century featured brave samurai and heroic women of Japan’s past, models of appropriate behavior for the future.

The exhibition and catalog examine Chikanobu’s work over 30 years from 1875 to 1906. He lived in Edo/Tokyo and collaborated with the best publishers and woodblock carvers of his time. However, very little is known about his personal life as an artist, perhaps because family records were not kept or were destroyed in the great earthquake of 1923 and/or the bombings of the 1940s that leveled much of the city. While other Meiji Period print artists, like Yoshitoshi, have been extensively researched and written about in English and Japanese books, this is the first attempt to survey Chikanobu’s whole career.

Following a showing at the Williamson Gallery in early fall 2006, the exhibition will travel to Carleton College (Jan.-Feb. 2007),Vassar College (March-May 2007), Denison University (Sept.-Oct. 2007), Boston University (Nov. 2007-Jan. 2008) and DePauw University (Feb.-May 2008). In late 2008, the exhibition will open in Tokyo at the International Christian University and then travel to other museums in Japan.The exhibition tour and catalog are sponsored in part by two Mellon Foundation-funded “faculty career enhancement grants.”

Bruce A. Coats is professor of art history and department chair.