The uniform coats, the gun, and the title, "Scouting Enemy Movements on Ice near Yingkou," (about 1894-1895), say this is a war print. But if "war print" makes you think of something like a poster from a World War II propaganda film, think again.
The men on horseback travel in a landscape that modulates from the white of moonlit ice to the grays of cloud-streaked sky; it's a print evocative of night, cold and quiet.
And yet it is propaganda, as are all of the 80 woodblock prints (only half of which are currently on view) in the exhibit "In Battle's Light: Woodblock Prints of Japan's Early Modern Wars" at the Walters Art Gallery (through May 26). To one who is not a fan of war art, it sounds deadly. But it isn't, because of the ability of the artists to combine their scenes of war with, as the accompanying catalog says, "a poetic 'Japanese' quality in the treatment of landscape, moonlight, and snow.'"
That ability undoubtedly sprang in part from the very propagandistic nature of the prints; rather than depict war realistically, the prints were intended to strengthen support at home as a newly industrialized Japan flexed its military muscles at the turn of thecentury. After the "opening to the West" in the 1850s, Japan rapidly industrialized and built its armed forces on the model of the West. When it defeated China in 1894-'95, and 10 years later Russia, the world was forced to realize that Japan had become a major power.
During these wars Japanese artists turned out numerous prints, both chromolithographs and woodblock prints. The latter, laboriously produced, required the collaboration of artist, engraver, printer and publisher. To cite only one difficulty, a separate block had to be carved for each color of each print.
The results are often remarkable.In some, the battle takes precedence, and the best of them can impress even the non-war buff by their energy and color. Even in these, however, there will often be a delicate tree or a distant mountain to admire. Others, such as prints by Ogata Gekko, Kobayashi Kiyochika and Mizuno Toshikata, give great emphasis to landscape. Toshikata's "Seven Brave Marines . . . Land on the Shore near Weihaiwei" (1895) is a beautiful snow scene in which the Marines are compositional elements as much as the subject of the print. And the scout is almost incidental to the tranquil night scene in Kiyochika's "Our Scout Reconnoiters . . ."
The artists could achieve these effects because their prints were prop
aganda rather than straight reporting. They are based on incidents from the war, but artists did not visit the front, and did not have to use the exact details of a given setting as a photographer would; they could make up their own. Interest is added by the fact that some of these artists westernize their art to some extent by means such as more naturalism in the treatment of the figure.
It's a real shame that, due to space limitations, only half of these prints can be seen at a time. The first half will be up through April 28, the second half April 30 through May 26. Many may enjoy the first half enough to resolve to come back for the rest, but such resolutions are more often made than kept.