May 10, 2007


Shin Hanga: The New Print Movement of Japan. By Barry Till. Pomegranate. $24.95.

Louis Sullivan’s Merchants National Bank. By Bill Menner. Pomegranate. $18.95.

      Different cultures approach design questions quite differently. There is little surprise in discovering delicacy in Japanese artistic expressions, but a great deal in finding such delicacy within stolid, foursquare American buildings – bank buildings, no less.

      As curator Barry Till explains in his straightforward introduction, shin hanga (which literally means “new prints”) is a movement that lasted from about 1910 to 1960 (although some elements continue today). It was started by a publisher named Watanabe Shozaburo – who was concerned about the decreasing interest in older woodblock prints called ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). Shozaburo recruited talented young artists to produce new and original prints that would echo the old style but have mass appeal and be more widely available than the old, increasingly costly woodblock prints. Although various foreign artists contributed to shin hanga, the prints shown in this book – all from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia – exhibit traditional Japanese color use and attention to detail. This is so even when the prints show American scenes, as three 1925 examples do (Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Mount Rainier, all by Yoshida Hiroshi). When the prints show Japanese scenes, they are particularly lovely. Examples include “Moon over Tide at Enoshima” (1933) by an artist known simply as Toko, done almost entirely in shades of blue except for the bright full moon; “Fireflies” (1934) and “Girl with a Fan” (1924) by Ito Shinsui, showing traditionally dressed Japanese women using fans in decidedly nontraditional ways, including as a fly swatter; and a number of prints of actors in theater roles. The influence of shin hanga was wide, as this book shows through inclusion of several works by British and French artists, but the subject matter and style of the works speak always of traditional Japan.

      Architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) had wide influence of a different sort. Considered the creator of a uniquely American architectural style, Sullivan – for whom Frank Lloyd Wright worked from 1887 to 1893 – has been called the father of the American skyscraper. But Louis Sullivan’s Merchants National Bank shows him creating more modest buildings, and in some ways more intricate ones. Late in his career, between 1908 and 1920, Sullivan designed eight buildings that he described as “jewel boxes.” At first glance, they are squat, usually rectangular, and of no immediate interest. At second and later glances, they are fascinating. They are bank buildings designed with a combination of brick-box simplicity and wonderfully detailed ornamentation. Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, was the fourth of Sullivan’s jewel boxes (pictures of all the others, including an unusual trapezoidal building designed for a triangular lot, are shown at the end of the book). Journalist and architecture aficionado Bill Menner, who lives in Grinnell, discusses the opening of Sullivan’s bank building on New Year’s Day 1915, explains how it came to be designed and built, and then offers a photographic tour of its many surprises – which include gilded terra-cotta ornamentation, gorgeous stained-glass windows by Louis Millet, and a fascinating juxtaposition of geometric shapes with griffins and stylized human figures. The bank remains in use with fairly minor modifications, the unexpected delicacy within its overall blocky structure making it an unusually pleasant example of American design that stresses utilitarianism but determinedly provides something more as well.

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