Japan’s past disasters spring to life through prints

Art gallery exhibit features pieces from 1800s and early 1900s

Curator of Asian Art Barry Till points to a woman in a wooden bathtub that was ripped out of her home by the force of a Japan tsunami wave. This and other woodblock prints from the 1800s and early-1900s are on display at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery until Sept. 5.

When an earthquake and tsunami turned Japan’s northeast coast into a swampy wasteland earlier this year, photos were only an Internet search away.

But when three similar disasters struck the island nation between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, before the days of film cameras, the Japanese government had to rely on more creative means to show the devastation.

Artists would be commissioned to design posters to depict the carnage that resulted from the ocean’s pounding. Their images would be mass produced using a woodblock printing method that involved carving wood stamps for each colour and hand-pressing the layers onto the poster, one at a time.

“It was a very labour-intensive process,” explained Barry Till, curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where dozens of these disaster prints are on display.

The posters look something like watercolour paintings and they would be distributed throughout the country. People would collect them to hang in their home, though the subject matter was rather grim.

One print included in the exhibit shows a naked woman in a wooden bathtub riding atop a wave filled with bodies, as a man clings to a utility pole trying to rescue someone from the water. A volcano explodes in the background.

“The woman survived – the wave dropped her and her bathtub on a hilltop,” Till said, explaining that the prints were based on true events. “Each one is a little history lesson.”

Other posters show people jumping from a wooden bridge as it burns or a train derailed by the shifting earth. All depict many casualties.

“This is how the government recruited people to help rebuild the cities or to donate money for relief,” Till said.

While the exhibit, which opens Friday (June 17), is timely because of the March earthquake in Japan – the gallery scheduled it long before that tragedy – there’s more than just disaster prints on display.

Japan also produced numerous propaganda posters using the woodblock method during the 1894 war against China and the 1904 war with Russia, to help recruit soldiers and build national pride. Unlike the disaster prints, the war posters rarely showed death or injury and when they did, it was usually an enemy down.

“They glorify the Japanese soldiers as heroes,” Till said.

Before the two wars, the Japanese military had received training in Europe. The posters show the Japanese wearing Western-style uniforms and using more advanced artillery than the opposing soldiers.

“Some of the posters are quite racist, and we’re expecting some people will be offended by them,” Till said.

“We include the controversial prints because they were part of the art of the time.”

The exhibit, War and Disaster in Japanese Prints, continues at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery until Sept. 5. For more information visit www.aggv.ca.

news@goldstreamgazette.com

Just Posted

Easter Seal’s Drop Zone gives participants chance to rappel down 13-storey Victoria building

Event supports Easter Seal’s services, specifically their camp in Shawnigan

Tackling ‘one fear after another:’ ‘Spirit Orca’ swimmers ready for next challenge

Victoria swimmers with developmental disabilities preparing for ocean relay in Great Bear Rainforest

Oak Bay mom describes finding son ‘gone’ on first day of coroners inquest into overdose death

Jury to make recommendations based on death of Elliot Eurchuk, 16

Derelict trimaran removed from Oak Bay waters

Boat has been aground near Oak Bay Marina for over five months

Confusing parking lot blamed for cars tipping into flowerbeds at Peninsula Canadian Tire

Tow and repairs cost thousands, engineer says drivers’ responsibility, Canadian Tire stay quiet

WATCH: Barbers battle it out in Victoria

‘Barber Battle’ saw stylists and barbers from across North America go head-to-head

Dash-cam video in trial of accused cop killer shows man with a gun

Footage is shown at trial of Oscar Arfmann, charged with killing Const. John Davidson of Abbotsford

Suicide confirmed in case of B.C. father who’d been missing for months

2018 disappearance sparked massive search for Ben Kilmer

Eight U.S. senators write to John Horgan over B.C. mining pollution

The dispute stems from Teck Resources’ coal mines in B.C.’s Elk Valley

Threats charge against Surrey’s Jaspal Atwal stayed

Atwal, 64, was at centre of controversy in 2018 over his attendance at prime minister’s reception in India

Anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to speak in Surrey

He’s keynote speaker at Surrey Environment and Business Awards luncheon by Surrey Board of Trade Sept. 17

Otters devour 150 trout at Kootenay hatchery

The hatchery has lost close to 150 fish in the past several months

B.C. church’s Pride flag defaced for second time in 12 days

Delta’s Ladner United Church says it will continue to fly the flag for Pride month

Update: Two shot, two arrested at Toronto Raptors victory rally

The team and several dignitaries, including Justin Trudeau, remained on stage

Most Read