When Modern War Met an Antique Art

Kobayashi Kiyochika,  “In the Battle of the Yellow Sea a Sailor Onboard Our Japanese
Warship ‘Matsushima’, on the Verge of Dying, Asked Whether or Not
the Enemy Ship had been Destroyed” (October 1894)
 [2000.109a-c] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The earliest extant woodblock print was uncovered in a 7th century tomb excavated in the outskirts of modern Xian, then known as Chang’an, the seat of the Tang court.  Buddhist scriptures and holy phrases were the objects printed, and as at this time the connections between the Buddhist sangha of Japan, Korea, and China were closely intertwined it was not long before these sacred texts (and the technologies that created them) had spread across East Asia. When Westerners think of Eastern wood-block printing, however, it is not Buddhist wonders like the Tripitaka Koreana, but the colorful and iconic ukiyo-e style prints of Edo Japan that first spring to mind. Most folks have never heard of the word ukiyo-e, of course, but people the world over recognize the style when they see it. Be it Hokusai‘s great wave or Hiroshige‘s famous birds and landscapes, this style woodblock artwork can be found in kitsch and curio stores across the globe. 

Yasuda Hampo, “Picture of the Eighth Attack on Port Arthur.
The Flagship of Russia Was Destroyed by the Torpedo of Our Navy
and Admiral Makaroff Drowned” (1905)

We associate ukiyo-e prints with traditional Japanese landscapes or pastoral settings, episodes from Japanese myths or historical epics, and scenes of courtesan life in Edo. It can be a bit bewildering when we see the same art style and production methods used to produce more modern images. This should not be too much of a surprise, however: the most famous of the great Japanese woodblock artists died only a few decades before Commodore Perry brought his black boats to Edo bay. Much of their era would disappear in the miraculous changes of the Meiji revolution, but as the prints included here show quite clearly,  much of the old order lived on into the 20th century. 

These prints all depict episodes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 or the Russo-Japanese War that was waged a decade later. Remarkably, none of these prints were designed to be great works of art; the great majority were carved and colored to accompany news reports from the front-lines, printed in newspapers or periodicals circulating in Japan on short notice. The artists never saw the battlefields they depicted, relying instead on common visual tropes,  reporter’s accounts (you can see a gaggle of such reporters in the bottom right corner of the print placed directly below), and their own imaginations to create these images. The prints are therefore less useful for understanding the tactics or battlefield conditions of these wars than they are for understanding the attitude of a Japanese public mobilized for external conquest for  the first time in centuries. 

As historical sources the prints are revealing. A comparison of the physical features of the Japanese and Chinese soldiers depicted testifies to how thoroughly the Japanese people had adopted the racialist ideology common in European circles at the time. The prints, like the wars themselves, also betray how eager the Japanese were to prove that they were the equals of the Western powers. Perhaps most interesting, however, is how exultantly they depict the wars of their day. Tactically, the Russo-Japanese War was not far removed from the Great War that soon followed it, but the way the Japanese portrayed their experience with industrial warfare could not be further removed from the collective horror Europeans felt when they fought in the trenches. These woodblock prints were some of the first artistic renderings of industrial age warfare; never again would a people forced to wage such a war render it so beautifully. 

Copied below are the war prints I found most useful as historical windows or most visually arresting as works of art. The MIT Visualizing Cultures project has a much larger gallery of images that those as fascinated by these prints as I am will wish to explore. Also useful is an in-depth three part visual essay by John. W. Dower that explains the context for most of these images and which I drew upon to write this introduction to the prints.

Mizuno Toshikata, “Hurrah, Hurrah for the Great Japanese Empire! Picture of the 
Assault on Songhwan, a Great Victory for Our Troops” (July 1894)
 [2000.435] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Our Forces’ Great Victory in the Battle of the Yellow Sea – First Illustration” (Oct 1894)
 [2000.380_15] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Picture of Our Second Army Landing at 
Jinzhoucheng and Bombarding the Enemy Camp” (1894)
 [2000.380_33] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Scouting Out the Enemy Situation near Tianzhuangtai”  (1894)
[2000.021] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 Adachi Ginkō, “Major Sakakibara Fights Fiercely to the South of Ximucheng” (January 1895)
[21_1549] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mizuno Toshikata,, “Admiral Ding Juchang of the Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Totally Destroyed at Weihaiwei,
Commits Suicide at His Official Residence”  (February 1895) [IMP_44_74]
Ogata Gekkô, “Illustration of the Death-Defying Squad of Captain Osawa and Seven Others 
from the Crew of the Warship Yaeyama Pushing Forward in Rongcheng Bay” (1895)
 [2000.408a-c] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Mizuno Toshikata, “After the Fall of Weihaiwei, the Commander of the
 Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Admiral Ding Juchang, Surrenders” (November 1895) 
[2000.123] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kobayashi Kiyochika,, “A Soldier’s Dream at Camp during a Truce in the Sino-Japanese War”
(April 1895) [2000.279] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Getsuzō,” In the Battle of Nanshan, Lieutenant Shibakawa Matasaburō 
Led His Men Holding up a Rising Sun War Fan” (1904)
 [2000.448] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Shinohara Kiyooki, “A Righteous War to Chastise the Russians: 
The Night Attack of the Destroyer Force” (1904)
 [2000.453] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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