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The Real Last Samurai 

click to enlarge Chikanobu, _The Morning East Wind Clearing the Clouds of the Southwest (Okige No Kum Harau Asagochi)_, detail, 1877.
  • Chikanobu, _The Morning East Wind Clearing the Clouds of the Southwest (Okige No Kum Harau Asagochi)_, detail, 1877.
For those who saw the Tom Cruise epic The Last Samurai a few years ago, some elements of the historical record will seem familiar—Japan opens its largely closed society (under threat of force) to engagement with the West in the mid-19th century, resulting in rapid social and political change that shakes the country’s traditional values and practices to the core.

Of course, much of the movie is pure fiction. But a fascinating glimpse of the true intricacy of Japanese engagement with Western culture will be on view starting March 23 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. "Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints" focuses on the works produced by this artist, whose lifespan encompassed the Meiji period (1868-1912), when feudal shogunates were replaced with a more modern, Western-inspired form of government.

Born into a samurai family in 1838, Chikanobu was trained as a warrior, and later became a student of the master woodblock print designers Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, and Kunichika, using the flat planes and decorative patterning of the ukiyo-e tradition to striking effect, according to Vassar curator Patricia Phagan.

In contrast to the simplistic narrative of The Last Samurai, there was no simple either/or choice between traditional Japanese culture and Western style values and dress. Chikanobu’s prints document both the embrace of new ideas—English-style horse racing and Western military dress—as well as traditional cultural emblems like formal court robes, and at times appear side-by-side in the same image.

The prints in the show recount the many-layered history of a culture in flux, yet still undeniably attached to its rich past. At times Chikanobu looks forward; at others he looks longingly backward. Contact with the modern West in the 19th century presented the people of Japan with new opportunities as well as new dangers—all of which is beautifully detailed in the vivid collection of prints in this show.

Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints
will be on view March 23 through May 13 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie. A lecture and reception for the exhibition will be held on March 30 at 5pm. (845) 437-5632; www.fllac.vassar.edu.

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