Kiyochika: Master of the Night

On September 3, 1868, the city called Edo ceased to exist. Renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers, the city became the primary experiment in a national drive toward modernization. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), a minor retainer of the recently deposed shogun, followed his master into exile. When he returned to his birthplace in 1874, Kiyochika found Tokyo filled with railroads, steamships, gaslights, telegraph lines, and large brick buildings—never-before-seen entities that were now ingrained in the cityscape.

Self-trained as an artist, Kiyochika set out to record his views of Tokyo. A devastating fire engulfed the city in 1881 and effectively ended the project, but the ninety-three prints he had completed were unlike anything previously produced by a Japanese artist. Avoiding the colorful and celebratory cityscapes of traditional woodblock prints, Kiyochika focused on light and its effects. Dawn, dusk, and night were his primary moments of observation, and his subjects—both old and new—are veiled in sharply angled light, shadows, and darkness. To accommodate this new way of seeing, Kiyochika effectively invented a visual vocabulary that incorporated elements of oil painting, copperplate printing, and photography. Interest in Kiyochika’s prints revived in the 1910s, when Tokyo intellectuals began to interpret the series as a critique of modernity.

In the exhibition, approximately half of the prints from the Kiyochika’s views of Tokyo are displayed in thematic groupings that represent the artist’s unique visions and site selections. Beyond describing the odd juxtapositions of traditional and modern, Kiyochika lingers on more subtle shifts in communal sensibility. He shows a population inclined to spectatorship over participation and introduces solitary figures sleepwalking in a new landscape.

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