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ICN Gallery Part 1 What is Ukiyo-e? Event report

Date: Saturday 21st April 2012 [13:46] | Posted By: Priss

The ICN gallery London opened this month with the first in a series of exhibitions exploring the iconic historic Japanese artist movement, Ukiyo-e. The works explore the tradition and an influential legacy that has shaped the face of modern Japanese artistry.
Full Story
The ICN Gallery, secreted in the stylish centre of Shoreditch, is modest exhibition space which offers both refreshment and stimulus for the senses through an array of enchanting works by Japanese artists.

The core focus of the exhibition entitled "What is Ukiyo-e?" is a collection of artworks produced by the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. These pictures have been faithfully reproduced according to the techniques originally employed by master crafters such as Hokusai, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige. Visitors are given a glimpse of the "fleeting life" as they would have appeared when they had been freshly pressed and printed by the artist. It is apparent for anyone with an interest in antique prints that the skill and attention to detail is impeccable. They are at once dynamic and delicate, powerful and provocative portraying the character of the land, the people, the culture and mythos of Japan.

One might be inclined to ask, what is the point in an exhibition that is principally made up copies? The answer, as the Victorians knew all too well, is in presentation and the preservation of history. (To see a prime example of this, visit Cast Courts of the Victoria & Allbert Museum, where a curious and eclectic collection of replicas of world sculpture and architecture can be viewed in one place). As much as collectors may extol the virtues and value of an original print, it is a sad reality that such artworks are not eternal and are destined to fade and deteriorate. It is with this foresight that the Adachi Institute has worked with the seminal sources of the movement, restoring and resurrecting the original designs from the woodcuts made by renowned masters.

Hokusai 'Great Wave Off Kanagawa'
Hokusai 'Great Wave Off Kanagawa' - ICN gallery

Artworks that have survived from the Edo age have an intrinsic and deeply attractive allure to collectors and as such, it is to be expected that collectors of antique woodblock prints may be disappointed by the ICN’s Ukiyo-e exhibition. It should occur to most visitors, however, that the value of these reproductions is not merely to be found their beauty as faithful copies of historical iconic works but as a means to preserve the techniques that have informed and inspired artists for generations. In an age where artwork is increasingly produced in a digital realm, it is important not to lose touch with the foundations of traditional art practices. Even when techniques are deemed obsolete by commercial art culture, any practicing artist will know that to refer to the roots of any art form is an incredible means to inform, cultivate and advance their own creativity.

Sharaku 'The Actor Otani Oniji III as Edobei'
Sharaku 'The Actor Otani Oniji III as Edobei' - ICN gallery

For those who are interested in art for its technical production and inspirational quality this is an excellent exhibition that shouldn’t be missed. I would suggest that this is particularly true for artists who work with graphic design.

Kuniyoshi 'Bonbon from the series Kingyo-zukushi' - ICN gallery
Kuniyoshi 'Bonbon from the series Kingyo-zukushi' - ICN gallery

As a fan of the Ukiyo-e arts by Kuniyoshi, I was particularly amused by the series of recently rediscovered prints entitled Kingyo-zukushi, in which an anthropomorphised family of ornamental goldfish create scenes of Japanese culture.

Ryo Arai 'Sazae' - ICN gallery
Ryo Arai 'Sazae' - ICN gallery

It is not only woodcuts that are on show at the ICN. There are some incredible sculpture and ceramics by artists who have created works that embody the core themes and imagery of Ukiyo-e. These are particularly engaging as they feature a dimensional shift from traditional 2D to 3D and offer a new perspective and experience of the art movement by Japanese artists from different crafts. Figurative artist Ryo Arai contributed beautiful and intricate papier-mâché pieces featuring marvellous monsters from Japanese history. The piece Sazae is a hand-crafted shell - embellished with spiral of oni heads. Each little face on the swirling surface had its own particular expression. It is a delightful and delicate piece that combines great comedy and creativity in the spirit of the masters of Ukiyo-e of the Edo period.

Keiko Masumoto 'Octopus/pot'
Keiko Masumoto 'Octopus/pot' - ICN gallery

Sadly, many of the 3D arts were not on display but could be seen in the gallery catalogue. A vast array of enchanting and enticing sculpted works have been produced for the exhibition, such as Keiko Matsumoto’s Octopus/pot. This stunning work in swirling blue and white ceramic depicted a traditional octopus pot used by fisherman in Japan to capture these curious cephalopods for their culinary appeal. The body of the vessel is made sublime by the overflowing form of the octopus and its tentacles. The undulating pattern and limbs that meld merge with the limits of the container are as pleasing as they are provocative. It has resonance with Matsumoto’s interest in breaching borders and how artists have the ability to transcend the limits of labelling such as "crafts" and "fine arts".

The artists of the Adachi Institute work to preserve, promote and progress the art of woodcut print production, giving it a lasting presence in contemporary art practices. The ICN is due to feature the original works of these modern woodblock artists later in the year.

Part 2: "Ukiyo-e and Contemporary Japanese artists"; 5 July - 1 September 2012
Part 3: "Edo Stylish"; 1 - 10 November 2012 during Asian Art in London with Ukiyo-e demonstrations and workshops

The prints are currently available to purchase online through the website:


Also of interest to fans of more contemporary Japanese art, the gallery is also hosting 20>20, a collection of digital artworks recently displayed at Hyper Japan.

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