Insect Prints and Insects
The world of insects was an almost irresistible source of subject matter for Japanese print makers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Their intriguing forms, covering the whole spectrum from the elegant to the bizarre, were well-suited to what was becoming an increasingly refined medium. Furthermore, insect textiles and colors invited the artist to explore the full range of the medium's possibilites through the use of such techniques as subtle embossing with fine mica powder. Observation of the insect world also fitted in well with the Japanese printmakers' predilection for depicting events and characters from everyday life. It might even be suggested that the artist saw amusing parallels between his predatory bugs and outrageously colored butterflies and those who inhabited the glitzy demi-monde of which he was so much a part.
The portrayal of insects and flowers in prints is closely related to the bird-and-flower genre (kacho-e) which follows on from a well-established tradition in Chinese painting. While Chinese printmaking also influenced the development of this medium in Japan, Chinese prints of insects and flowers (such as the 17th century example to the right of this label) served a fundamentally different purpose from their Japanese counterparts. The Chinese examples were included in artistic manuals as models for aspiring painters while in Japan they were produced and enjoyed for their own sake.
The majority of prints in this exhibition once formed part of a book on insects and flowers by the comparatively little-known artist Shunkei. Though working with a keen sense of scientific accuracy, Shunkei often added touches of humor such as a greedy toad eyeing an elegant grasshopper with obviously malicious intent. Other works in the exhibition are by some of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print: Hiroshige (1797-1858), Hokusai (1760-1849), and Hokkei (1780-1850). The insect specimens were selected from the collection of the RISD Nature Laboratory by its curator, Timothy Rumage. Some were chosen for comparison with those in the prints, others for thier own intrinsic beauty.