Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Monochromatic Prints in 20th-Century Japan

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July 20, 2019 - September 15, 2019
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

Before the 19th century, only organic pigments such as indigo and dayflower, which faded quickly when exposed to ultraviolet light, could produce the color blue in Japanese prints. Therefore, when the synthetic, highly resilient pigment ferric ferrocyanide (Prussian Blue) was introduced to Japan in the 1820s, designers experimented obsessively with it, resulting in such iconic works as The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c.1830–1832) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Curiously, however, designers maintained a passionate interest in the color blue long after ferric ferrocyanide had lost its novelty. One likely reason for this trend was the popularization of abstract art in Europe and America during the early 20th century. Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), the pioneer of abstract art, discussed the emotional effects of colors, including the strong spiritual significance of blue:

The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural ….The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.

-Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911

This print rotation includes works by Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955), typically described as the forefather of Japanese abstract art, as well as several of his students.

Made possible by the Robert F. Lange Foundation.


Kawase Hasui (1883–1957)
Starlit Night, Miyajima
Japan, 1928
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of Anna Rice Cooke, 1931