This summer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents two special exhibits: “The Impressionist’s Eye” and “Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle,” which explore mid-19th century art in Europe and Japan, respectively. While the pairing of two distinct styles may not seem intuitive, I found it to be an inspired combination. The soft colors and undefined shapes of Impressionist art contrast perfectly with Yoshitoshi’s bold, dynamic style of printmaking.
“The Impressionist’s Eye” features the work of masters such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh. Some of the most recognizable works of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements are on display, including “Sunflowers” by Van Gogh and “The Bathers” by Paul Cezanne. As much as I enjoyed seeing these iconic paintings in person, I was most impressed by the insight the exhibit gives into the artistic process of Impressionist painters.
The exhibit urges us to look at the works of art on display through the perspective of an Impressionist painter. At first glance, these paintings look like they were painted rapidly or even carelessly. However, the text accompanying these works draws attention to the strategic planning involved in creating the impression of effortlessness, as well as how the different types of brush strokes yield a wide range of effects. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of preliminary sketches and studies by famous artists, providing insight into the meticulous preparation that went into each painting.
While Impressionism is well known in the West, few Americans are familiar with the tradition of Japanese printmaking. “Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle” introduces visitors to the work of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, known as the last great master of the traditional Japanese woodcut before the art form was replaced by photography and a new printmaking process called lithography.
Yoshitoshi’s art is full of brilliant colors and vibrant patterns; each print is packed with an unbelievable amount of detail. The style looks modern in many ways, reminiscent of manga and anime as well as Western cartoons. The emotional intensity of the subjects, not to mention the surprising amount of gore in many of the prints, stands in sharp contrast to the emphasis on serenity and naturalism in Impressionist art.
Like “The Impressionist’s Eye,” this exhibit is designed to give viewers a sense of how Yoshitoshi’s style developed over time. The prints are displayed chronologically — a decision that not only allows visitors to view the artist’s stylistic evolution, but also understand how historical influences in Japan impacted the subject matter of Yoshitoshi’s work. Later prints reflect a growing Western influence during the Meiji Restoration. For instance, I was fascinated by a print of a wealthy Japanese woman wearing clothes similar to those worn in Victorian England. Other prints give us a glimpse at traditional Japanese culture, from portrayals of legendary heroes to depictions of gruesomely rendered ghosts to idyllic nature scenes.
My favorite part of the exhibit, however, demonstrates the process of making a color print. While a video shows the process of carving a woodcut, a display shows the same painting at each step in the process of printmaking, from black linework to finished product. This new perspective on artistic process gave me a greater appreciation for the amount of planning and attention to detail Yoshitoshi put into each print.
Both exhibits are captivating, and showcase eye-catching and innovative works. However, these exhibits shine not just because of the art featured, but because the Philadelphia Museum of Art does such an excellent job of conceptualizing the artworks on display. By giving viewers a look into how and why each piece of art was created the way it was, it encourages people to look closer and appreciate art in a new way.