Edo Pop is Lady Lever’s exhibition of Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e translates as ‘pictures of the floating world’, a phrase that immediately resonates with the #world we consume daily; the pixel-swirl of Instagram, garish colours of nightclub flyers, lusciously produced adverts, or artwork from albums like Life of Pablo. We are constantly navigating through and responding to a dizzying whirl of images, yet to claim their fixed place in history.
Ukiyo-e (from now on let’s just call them woodblocks) were never made for galleries, and there’s a strange problem that arises out of putting things in galleries that were never intended to be there. On the one hand, galleries offer an ideal environment to actively view things: uncluttered, quiet, well-lit. But they also sanctify; they raise objects out of the everyday and load them with presence. It’s not surprising that such spaces are most commonly associated with churches; spaces which lend objects a weight that encourages people to stop, dwell and unravel. This context can certainly ensure things are really seen. But it can also smother.
Edo Pop’s curation and interpretation does well to swerve the loftiness that objects over 100 years old tend to accumulate when put in galleries alongside oil paintings and classical vases. As collector (and donor) Frank Milner points out in the intro to the show, “The ephemeral prints are the pop art of their day… The people that bought these prints are people just like I was when I was 18, buying Sgt. Pepper’s”. The wall texts and exhibition design support this aesthetic, crucially allowing the humour, playfulness and sheer spectrum of life in all its mundane, everyday glory depicted on the woodblocks, to vibrantly jump out.
In Death Print of Ichikawa, Danjuro VII (main image, Utagawa Kunisada, 1859), the subject is painted on a scroll, overlooking his son Danjuro IX, who is supposedly mourning him. But what it really looks like is an embarrassed, ashamed and disappointed father staring at his symmetrically embarrassed, ashamed and disappointed son, their faces twisted into the same sheepish knot. It is their distance from each other that brings them together. It’s strangely uplifting. And it’s funny, not in spite of its comic treatment of death, but because of it.
Compare that to another funeral painting, also from National Museums Liverpool collection, painted 40 years after the above. Death Print of Ichikawa tells a very human story and invites us to respond to it. Funeral of Shelley (Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889) presents a scene that asks us to admire the sensibility of the wealthy – in this case, Lord Byron.
This pattern of locating the comic and the tragic at once and telling it in snapshot visual stories runs throughout the exhibiton. As a Japanese visitor (in full kimono, no less) explained to me, many woodprints are all about stories, about working backwards and forwards from a frozen moment, unpacking the narrative, locating the human.
Other standout prints in the show include a series of wide-angle panoramas full of people, that invite us to wonder about their stories and revel in the enormous spectrum of humanity contained in cities: travellers, drunks, actors, monks, prostitutes, merchants, cooks, musicians, the young, the old – the whole smorgasbord of people doing their bit to make up the fabric of a place.
Edo Pop is a good place to think about why we’re seeing a renewed interest in Japanese culture so much recently (i.e., the enduring popularity of Murakami’s novels, Frank Ocean’s ongoing infatuation with the country, the cult status of Studio Ghibli). There’s something implacable at the heart of a lot of it, or so it seems. Whatever it is, I think we’re lacking it over here, and we’re responding to a deep-seated need. It’s something about being able to be lighthearted about gravely serious things (something we’re pretty good at), but equally able to locate meaning in the lighthearted (something we’re not so hot on). About giving solidity to ‘the floating world,’ whilst still celebrating its lightness. About being able to reconcile the polarities of modernity calmly and quietly: accepting that suicide and Hello Kitty can co-exist.
Edo Pop is at Lady Lever Art Gallery until 24 September.
Jacob Bolton is a Liverpool-based writer and music producer. He works at Open Eye Gallery. (T/I @bacobjolton)