Night Lights: festivals + fireworks in 19th c. Japan
Today’s new Vintage Edition is a toast to end-of-summer nostalgia by way of Kobayashi Kiyochika, a Japanese woodblock print artist of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Often referred to as “the last ukiyo-e artist”, Kiyochika became famous for his kōsenga style, or “light ray artworks”, exploring the play of light within nocturnal scenes.
Created in 1881, Fireworks at Ikenohata sets us amongst a silhouetted crowd just as a summer spectacle of pyrotechnics commences over Shinobazu Pond. Awash in a deep inky blue, the still surface of the water illuminates the atmosphere with reflections of window lights and soaring sparklers. A string of bright lanterns emits just enough light to glimpse a few patterned kimonos amid the shadows, while two distinctly brimmed hats nod to the rapid Westernization Japan was undergoing at the time.
Kiyochika’s work often oscillated between novelties of modernization and nostalgia for the past. Ukiyo-e artists of the earlier Edo Period (1618-1868) commonly depicted fireworks displays, which became strongly associated with old world Japan, while artists of the Meiji period favored highlights of modernization, Western architecture, European dress, or scenes of battle. Bridging the two, Kiyochika’s kōsenga work focused on holding on to traditional city views with subtle hints of a changing society.
Fireworks at Ikenohata is a still moment enveloped in anticipation—a sentimental gathering pressing pause on swift changes. These days we’ve come to cherish this sort of break in the chaos of the pandemic. (What day is it anyway?) While American culture typically associates such dazzling displays with the month of July, fireworks are an integral part of the Japanese Obon holiday (August 13-16), which has honored the spirits of ancestors for centuries. Today, Obon is filled with food stalls, festival games, and family gatherings. And in the spirit of reunion and remembrance, Fireworks at Ikenohata offers a timely pause to savor the waning days of summer.
With art for everyone,