There's a series of prints in "Color Woodcut International," the new show at the Chazen Museum of Art, that perfectly encapsulates the appeal of Japanese woodcuts. Yoshida Hiroshi's "Sailing Boats" from 1926 capture the same ship at six different times of day. We see it from hazy morning to nighttime, when the sailor's lantern is but an orange dot reflected on rippling water.
Yoshida's prints demonstrate how the same wooden blocks can be printed with different inks to produce dramatically varied results, and the prints' serene imagery and sublime sense of color are almost hypnotic during the scrappy grayness of a Madison winter. Simplicity, subtlety and elegant design are perfectly melded.
Japanese artists' mastery of woodcut brought international renown, and, as the subtitle of the show suggests ("Japan, Britain and America in the Early Twentieth Century," running through Feb. 25), Japan's influence spread. While artistic currents ran both east and west, Japan clearly was in the lead as a source of inspiration for artists from other nations.
Part of woodcuts' appeal comes from their stylized flatness, but also the way the prints suggest the hand that cut the block and printed the image. Their "humanness" makes them instantly appealing. In some prints, the grain of the wooden block shows through clearly in the image (as an example, see the blue background in Ohara Koson's "Two Cranes" in c. 1910).
Artists from other countries traveled to Japan to learn techniques firsthand, and some adopted the Japanese system for dividing labor, with separate people designing the image, cutting the block and printing the image.
Bertha Lum, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago but spent much of her adult life in Asia, was a leading American influenced by Eastern styles. Part of what makes Lum's prints so appealing is the way she adopts certain Japanese elements - such as graceful lines and deft use of open space - but still emerges with a style of her own. Lum is represented by three prints in this show, including the strange and fascinating "Peking Dust" of 1924, with its odd, pixie-like figure with talons for feet. Lum's sinuous lines have the energy and fluid appeal of Art Nouveau.
Other subjects in the show are more traditional: carp and cranes, landscapes and human figures, especially performers. While some might assume that art so easy to like must somehow lack substance, these prints really compel viewers to think about design and how what is simplified or left out can be just as powerful as what is rendered.
Japanese printmakers - and the colleagues they inspired in the U.S. and Britain - have created an utterly beguiling world to disappear into.