‘Japanese Wave’ at The Laing, Newcastle-upon-Tyne


I’m a sucker for Japanese art from the edo period and have been since visiting the Oriental Museum in Durham during my A levels then later seeing Kazari: Decoration and display in Japan 15th – 19th centuries at the British Museum  and Kabuki Heroes on the Osaka Stage 1780–1830 at the British Museum; ‘Encounters’ at the V&A .

I have had a go at wood block printing at Northern Print and have made prints and paintings inspired by Japanese art. So I was bound to love ‘Japanese Wave’.

Under the Wave, off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

Everyone recognises Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa but the gammat of prints reveals a much wider range of scenarios and subjects than one might expect. I love the prints that depict The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō that look like a modern tour guide. ‘Women Working in Silk Culture, Nos. 1-12’ by Kitagawa Utamaro is also incredibly beautiful and enlightening, a great step-by-step guide to the process of harvesting and processing silk.

"Women Working in Silk Culture, Nos. 1-12" by Kitagawa Utamaro

The Kabuki prints reveal more of the characteristics of the particular role the actor is playing and seem so alive compared to the prints of rich ladies and Geishas. The two rooms at The Laing are packed with a broad range of printed treasures and complimentary artefacts such as Inro, Netsuke, Pipes and combs.

I think the reason I love prints from this era are that they are strongly dependent on pared down drawing skills (line is key) and that pattern and colour are also exploited fully. I think as someone interested in art histories its hard to ignore their impact on people like the European impressionists and expressionists both in terms of subject and composition.

In the third room of ‘The Wave’ the Laing have presented works by Turner Prize nominee Lucy Skaer. Skaer’s ‘The Great Wave (Expanded)’ (2007) is a triptych that breaks down further into tiny squares each filled with pen marks that remind me a little of the end grain of a section of wood. Chatting to some other gallery visitors they found her work a little visually confusing, difficult to decipher and one even compared it (somewhat unfavourably) to a bath mat!

Skaer’s “Leonora (whale drawing)” 478 x 141cm Pen and pencil on paper is immense and fascinating. I love the way it wraps around the corner of the gallery (this is perhaps an arty gimmick but on the other hand it gives the drawing a sense of movement and animates the work)… I think as an image it is also more interesting than ‘The Great Wave’ simply because it hasn’t saturated popular culture in the same way.

“Leonora” 67 x 62 x 42cm Oak table with pearl is also beautiful and captivating. I think of the shadow made permanent or solid and of the outstretched figure reaching for something. It is a surreal object. Maybe Skaers work on Leonora Carrington is more vital and intriguing because it isn’t just about one artists relationship with an image but one artists relationship with another’s. I think the exhibition in definitely worth further investigation!

"Leonora (whale drawing)" 478 x 141cm Pen and pencil on paper by Lucy Skaer "Leonora" 67 x 62 x 42cm Oak tabel with pearl inlay by Lucy Skaer Courtesy of the artist and doggerfisher, Edinburgh Photography by Polly Braden

Further Reading

The Transcendence of the Image Lucy Skaer on Leonora Carrington: http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue14/image.htm

Monograph on Lucy Skaer in Frieze magazine: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/mining_for_gold1/

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