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Awash in Color at the Smart Museum | Art review

French and Japanese prints tell the story of a vital art form.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Henri Riviļæ½re, Vegetable Garden at Ville-Hue (Saint-Briac), 1890.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Gaston de Latenay, The Park (Le parc), 1897.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Katsushika Hokusai, Poppies, c. 1833-34.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais (detail), 1892-93.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Paul Elie Ranson, Tiger in the Jungle (detail), 1893.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige and Utagawa Kunisada, An Elegant Genji: Tsukuda (detail), 1853.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Katsushika Hokusai, Mishima Pass in Kai Province (Koshu Mishimagoe), from the Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, early 1830s.

Though we take color images in newspapers, magazines and books for granted, adding color to printed materials was once a difficult and laborious business. Through familiar works of art, “Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints” tells the little-known story of multicolor printing’s evolution in two distinct cultures.

The show’s earliest works demonstrate how France and Japan developed separate methods of color printing. In Japan, artists colored their prints by hand or overprinted colors from individually carved woodblocks. In France, engraving was overtaken by technological advances such as the 1867 invention of chromolithography. After trade relations between the two countries were formally established in the 1850s, Japanese prints were exhibited at World’s Fairs in Paris, and French-made printing presses were shipped to Japan. The exchange led to new art forms and new techniques.

What makes this show so original is that its curators—the Smart Museum’s Anne Leonard and U. of C. art historian Chelsea Foxwell—tie the work of well-known artists to the development of color. Though Hokusai’s Hydrangea and Swallow looks like a classic Japanese nature print, it was influenced by imported books of European botanical prints. Mary Cassatt’s The Bather directly imitates Utamaro’s intimate scenes of bathing women. Toulouse-Lautrec’s great Divan Japonais uses the fluid medium of lithography to pay homage to the stylized outlines and flat colors of the Japanese woodblock artists.

The prints in “Awash with Color” overflow with inventiveness, great design and beautiful representations of the people, landscapes and manners of their time.