Once isolated and mysterious, Japan captured the world’s imagination when it opened its doors to outsiders in the mid-nineteenth century. The colorful urban lifestyle of this era was chronicled by artists of a genre known as ukiyo-e. From geisha, samurai, kabuki actors, and kimonos, to scenes from history, mythology, and nature, these “pictures of the floating world” portrayed ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
Western onlookers, accustomed to ostentation and excess, found Japanese visual culture refreshingly simple. By the 1880s, artists and designers in Europe and America had fallen in love with the understated and yet vibrant styles of their Japanese counterparts. Many, in fact, imitated it in their own work. Cultural exchange ran both ways, and in Japan, Western art exerted a strong influence during the period of rapid modernization that eventually swept Japan onto the world stage.
A new exhibition from the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections features a wide range of rare books, prints, and photographs that provide a snapshot of Japan at the moment of its transition from a feudal state to a modern superpower. “A Voyage to the Floating World: Japanese Illustrated Books and East-West Cultural Exchange in the Nineteenth Century” will be on display in Hill Memorial Library from February 22 to May 14, 2016.
Japanese publications from the Edo and Meiji Periods (1603-1912) are the focus of the library’s upstairs gallery, which includes examples of natural history illustration, fiction, poetry, erotica, theater guides, maps, and war propaganda. The first-floor section of the exhibit tells the story of early Western encounters with Japan, as well as Japanese artists’ influence on the Impressionist and Art Nouveau movements.
“This exhibition is different from anything we’ve ever done before, and the timing is perfect,” said Michael Taylor, Curator of Books for the LSU Libraries. Five courses on Asian history and art are being taught at LSU this semester, as well as courses on printmaking and graphic design. Taylor hopes students will take advantage of this opportunity to connect course content with the library’s collections of historical materials.
Many of the works on display are recent acquisitions, collected to expand our holdings of teaching material on world cultures and the global history of the book. “Exposing students to international cultures has never been more important,” Taylor commented. “It not only sparks their curiosity and creativity, but also nurtures a cultural awareness that will help them in their future careers, especially if they’ll be working with people from other countries. Even if you can’t travel abroad, there are fascinating things from all around the world waiting to be explored right here at LSU.”
Taylor co-curated the exhibition with Glauco Adorno, an LSU art history graduate student originally from Brazil. “The exhibit showcases an amazing range of material,” Adorno said. “I think it’s relevant not only to those interested in Japanese art, but also the history of art in a global context.”
The exhibition is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the library at (225) 578-6544.