Thursday, 28 October 2010

Turning Japanese...

Kitagawe Utamaro, 'Three Beauties', woodblock print

I went to see the Utamaro exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham the other day. It blew my mind. I know the work well in reproduction, but seeing them for real was something else. The scale of them and the uniformity of the installation of what was a really substantial number of prints struck me as being so powerful and perfect. It was the best show I’ve seen in a long while.

Julian Opie

The influence of the Japanese woodblock artists has of course been a huge influence on Western painting from the Impressionists onwards in the late nineteenth century. It still exerts a powerful influence on more contemporary painters such as Alex Katz, Elizabeth Peyton and Julian Opie, who has co-curated an exhibition of Hiroshige’s prints at Ikon, and also created some recent portrait works that have been a sort of dialogue with Utamaro’s portraits.

Shaun Morris, 'Audience', oil on canvas, 240 x 450cms

Utamaro’s portraits have also been an influence on my own portrait paintings. I love the generalized treatment of form that is then juxtaposed with the most convincing and nuanced observations of gesture. I looked at these qualities a lot in my ‘Audience’ commission at JCC, as well as the deceptively simple, but inventive compositional elements he uses. I don’t think I could ever come anywhere near to the brilliance of his work, but it always remains very inspiring.

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