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Tokyo's transformation from ancient to modern shown in Smithsonian exhibit

Kiyochika used a Currier & Ives lithograph for this locomotive (note its cow catcher). Locomotives were not yet in Japan when the artist created this 1879 woodblock print; ink and color on paper. In "Kiyochika: Master of the Night".
Kiyochika used a Currier & Ives lithograph for this locomotive (note its cow catcher). Locomotives were not yet in Japan when the artist created this 1879 woodblock print; ink and color on paper. In "Kiyochika: Master of the Night".
Kobayashi Kiyochika, "View of Takanawa Ushimachi, under a Shrouded Moon". Robert O. Muller Collection, Sackler Gallery

"Kiyochika: Master of the Night"


Tokyo, from ancient to modern, in night and day, is illuminated magnificently by a self-taught master woodblock artist in a new exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery -- one of six Smithsonian exhibits for the current National Cherry Blossom Festival.

"Kiyochika: Master of the Night" captured Japan's new capital Tokyo, formerly Edo, as it underwent radical modernization in the late 19th century. Reformers in 1868 deposed Shogun rulers after 150 years, and launched no mere urban renewal. They rapidly transformed the capital by introducing gaslights, rickshaws, trains, steamships, large brick buildings, telegraph lines...

The drastic changes were illustrated by an equally radical artist, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915).

He created images unlike anything before, or since, by woodblock artists, said James Ulak, Senior Curator of Japanese Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Cityscape woodblock prints were usually celebratory and colorful, "boosters. But these had nothing of that enthusiasm," Ulak told a press preview. "This was the first stark look at modernization -- Kiyochika was the first great modernist." The artist viewed this sweeping change with a "double sense of curiosity and misgiving."

Kiyochika was unique also in his use of various sources of light and their effects, especially moonlight.

"He was in love with night," Ulak noted. The self-taught artist also loved playing with natural light compared with new artificial light.

Fire was a key form of light for this artist, and a very personal one. A massive fire in 1881 devastated much of the city, followed two weeks later by another major fire that destroyed his home and studio.

So he decided to end this series at 93 prints -- all created within five years, and miraculously all saved from the flames. Almost half of the series is displayed at the Sackler through July 27.

After this devastation, Kiyochika completely changed his perspective. He began producing far less creative and far more commercial "knock-offs of Hiroshige", one of Japan's greatest artists.

(Hiroshige's "Large Fish" series of 20 woodblock prints is displayed for the first time now through Sept. 14 at the Freer. The Hiroshige series is a highlight of "Bountiful Waters: Aquatic Life in Japanese Art", another of the six Smithsonian exhibits for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.)

The Sackler's free "Kiyochika: Master of the Night" exhibition begins with pleasures of the night. The only part of Edo that had been active after dark, before gaslight and later electric lights, was the old pleasure quarters.

Pleasure and "The Man in the Hat"

  • In "A Summer Moon at Imado", a geisha tunes her stringed instrument as she prepares for the night's work. It's unique in woodblock print-making because "the desired erotic mood, once achieved by moonlight and flickering candles, has been compromised by the light of a kerosene lamp."
  • In "Sumida River by Night", one of his few known works, a geisha walks with her patron, "The Man in the Hat". Wearing a western-style hat with traditional kimono, he is Kiyochika's often-used metaphor for Japan's moving from isolation toward opening to the western world.


One of his most striking representations of the western world is a locomotive -- before they had appeared in Japan. He patterned the American locomotive, complete with cow catcher on its front, after a Currier & Ives lithograph.

This "View of Takanawa Ushimachi, under a Shrouded Moon" is Kiyochika's most highly regarded use of light, curator Ulak noted. The artist contrasts reddish fire belching from the engine into a threatening gray sky that's fading into pink, rays from the locomotive's headlight, carriage interior lights reflecting on rice paddies, and ethereal figures shown as ghostly silhouettes. He often depicts humans in silhouette, cast by various types of newly available night.


Japan became fascinated with brick structures, "like today's self-infatuated architecture of McMansions in suburban D.C.," curator Ulak commented. Brick buildings were "expensive, difficult to build, no one liked them -- but they were modern."

  • The "Suspension Bridge within Castle Grounds", constructed of red brick with wire cables and steel braces, is adorned with the imperial chrysanthemum crest. Tokyo’s first suspension bridge was designed by Irish-born engineer Thomas Waters, one of the many "foreigners for hire" or resident foreign advisors working for the Meiji government. A rare western couple is shown standing across from a traditionally dressed Japanese couple.
  • In "Museum Fountain at the Second Domestic Exposition", the red brick, dome-topped Ueno Museum was designed by British architect Josiah Conder.


Modernization and western influence is shown even in fireworks in one of Kiyochika's better-known prints, "Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata". The trailing sparks are colorful, due to imported chemicals. Before this, Japanese fireworks were white, Ulak explained.


Many of the works focus, not surprisingly, on fire itself.

  • One of the most dramatic by far is the Jan. 26, 1881 "Great Fire in Ryōgoku Drawn from Hamachō", with several observers fleeing in panic from the flames and smoke. Another depicts a second major fire only two weeks later.
  • One of the most haunting is "Ryōgoku after the Fire", with a burned-out shell of the telegraph office, and two charred posts next to a street lamp, and plumes of smoke in the background. Black-swathed figures move past the devastation.
  • One of the most desolate is one of the last in his series. "Tarō Inari Shrine at the Asakusa Rice Fields" shows a deserted shrine near ramshackle brothels, and a path leading to an uncertain future.

Just as Kiyochika was in love with night, you will fall in love with "Kiyochika: Master of the Night".

For more info: "Kiyochika: Master of the Night", March 29-July 27, Free, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery,, 1050 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C., 202-633-1000. National Cherry Blossom Festival,

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