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Fireworks!

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, S2003.8.1195

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Robert O. Muller Collection; S2003.8.1195

Kobayashi Kiyochika is known for his night scenes in much the same way that James McNeill Whistler is renowned for his Nocturnes. Both men were poets of the night, and will be featured in related exhibitions at the Freer|Sackler in 2014.

In Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ryōgoku, two boats converge for Kawabiraki, a fireworks display held in mid-July to open the river to summer pleasure boats. In earlier times, fireworks had been used as part of a purification ritual to ward off summer illness. By Kiyochika’s time, the display had lost that earlier meaning and was more of a spectacle.

Kiyochika is not the first artist to depict this scene, but his novel use of light to illuminate the foreground adds a cinematic touch to the print. The members of both boating parties—traveling in a palace boat (yakatabune) on the right and a roof boat (yanebune) at left—cast silhouettes that make the revelers look as if they were sailing across a movie screen.

Happy July 4 from the Freer|Sackler!

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Fireworks Freer|Sackler Style

Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, 1881, Kobayashi Kiyochika, woodblock print, Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.1197

The Freer|Sackler has a number of works in its collections portraying fireworks, including this one by Kobayashi Kiyochika, a Japanese artist who lived from 1847-1915. The central figure here, who appears to be a young boy watching from a high vantage point, reminds me a little of Hokusai’s painting Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, painted in 1839, eight years before Kiyochika was born.

“Images of fireworks were a standard element in a pre-modern printmaker’s repertoire,” says James T. Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at Freer|Sackler. “In that sense, Kiyochika fulfills his audience’s expectations for traditional subject matter. He extends the boundaries of that tradition, however, by drawing the viewer into the same intimate perspective experienced by the spectators crowded on the periphery of the image.

“Moreover, Kiyochika pushes the dark tonalities of the print to an extreme that would not have been found in earlier nineteenth-century designs. Viewers look out over Shinobazu Pond toward Benten Shrine, which sits on a small island on a peninsula in Ueno Park, Tokyo.”

No matter where you choose to celebrate, Happy Fourth of July!

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