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By the Light of the Moon: Nocturnal Japanese Prints

Over the centuries, Japanese print designers have risen to the challenge of capturing the night in all its various moods. Whether presented as a boundary, a presence, or a frame of mind, the hours of darkness have provided a rich subject for the exploration of aesthetic ideas and artistic practice.

In the earliest prints featured in this exhibition, the darkness of the late evening serves as an almost theatrical backdrop where nighttime is a setting for action. In works by Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764) and Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770), the night is often rendered as a solid wall of black placed behind figures, lit only by the glow of lanterns or hovering fireflies. By the 19th century, the evening itself becomes the focus, defined not by the absence of the sun but by the presence of the moon and stars whose modest light seems to inspire a more philosophical approach. This is especially true in the prints of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), whose night skies, seemingly unlit, arch over scenic landscapes where townspeople and travelers are reduced in both size and stature, making them spectators as well as participants.

This refinement of nocturnal perception is developed further in the 20th century, as artists explored the complexity of night shadows and the moon’s reflection on water. Perhaps no one created more haunting images in Japanese printmaking than Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), an artist obsessed with depicting the evening’s aura. In his hands, the faint light seems to emanate from the landscape, heightening the intensity of vision rather than diminishing it.

In Hasui’s work and in all the nocturnal prints in this presentation—each drawn from the Art Institute’s permanent collection—the complexity of the dark is more clearly brought to light.
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