Primitive Announces Exhibition of Historically Significant Woodblock Prints Illustrating How Japanese Artists and Patrons Fought to Save Dying Art Form

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Primitive in Chicago just announced an exhibition entitled “Kuchi-e: The last gasp of Ukiyo-e.” The exhibition presents close to 300 examples of historically significant Kuchi-e woodblock prints, which depicted Japanese resistance to change while saving traditional woodblock printing from extinction as a viable art form.

A famous Kuchi-e woodblock print

Kuchi-e entitled "Insurance Girl"

Kuchi-e were the equivalent of the cover of a romantic novel one might see in a grocery store checkout line

Primitive in Chicago just announced an exhibition entitled “Kuchi-e: The last gasp of Ukiyo-e.” The exhibition presents close to 300 examples of Kuchi-e woodblock prints, which depicted resistance to modernization and saved woodblock printing as a viable art form. Beginning in the mid 19th century, Japanese society found itself quickly and dramatically changing due to the end of isolation and increased exposure to the west. However, by the end of the century a significant backlash occurred among people resisting modernization and longing for a return to traditional Japanese manners and customs. In the “art world” this movement manifested itself in two ways: first, as the resurrection of woodblock printing, which had almost become extinct due to the advent of western mechanical printing; and second, in the creation of images illustrating a lingering affection for the traditional Japanese view of the world.

The exhibition describes Kuchi-e as “the last gasp of Ukiyo-e,” a reference to traditional woodblock printing as it occurred in Japan between the 17th and 20th centuries. Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures of the floating world.” Kuchi-e literally translates as “mouth picture” or frontispiece. The prints were originally created as inserts placed at the beginning of popular romantic novels written during the latter part of the 19th century through the very beginning of the 20th. Glen Joffe, the owner of Primitive, said “Kuchi-e were the equivalent of the cover of a romantic novel one might see in a grocery store checkout line. The cover of a Danielle Steele novel might be considered a modern day Kuchi-e.” The woodblock prints in the exhibition were all created between 1890 and 1912.

Joffe said, “The vast majority of all Kuchi-e depict the plight and ordeals of traditional Japanese women. It is these women, which make Kuchi-e so memorable.” Kuchi-e originally came about when many Japanese longed for a return to more traditional society in the face of modernization. The women the artists depicted perpetuated the traditional Japanese view of feminine beauty and were embraced by publishers and the public alike. Ultimately, the era of Kuchi-e ended as artists began to pass on or devote themselves to painting, as Japanese women were depicted in more modern ways, as writers began to create novels which dealt with modern issues, as economics dictated cheaper printing methods, and as modernization took hold once again. Although Kuchi-e finally receded into the background, it remained a link between traditional Japan and the beginning of the modern Japan we know today, and as argued in the exhibition scheduled at the end of March, saved woodblock printing from extinction and preserved it as perhaps the most important art form ever produced in Japan.

About Primitive: Primitive is an established gallery located in downtown Chicago presenting exclusive as well as one-of-a-kind collections of furniture, artifacts, textiles, jewelry, fashion and artwork from all over the world. Whether you visit in-person or on the web, you will find a colorful mosaic of authentic collections brought from some of the world’s hardest to reach places. Everything offered at Primitive has a story, history, purpose and design heritage, and comes from the hand and heart.

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Glen Joffe

Shira Soskel
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