Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle
In 1896, in Manhattan Beach, New York, Pain’s Firework Company staged a pyro-spectacle reenacting a battle that had occurred some months previously. Capitalizing on the West’s fascination with things Japanese, the “superb pyro-spectacle” promised to re-create the explosive action of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese War.
Meanwhile, a similar re-creation was taking place in Japan. The centuries-old tradition of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock printmaking, was in decline against the rising tide of lithography and photography. But the medium was far from dead, and the Sino-Japanese War gave artists and enterprising publishers the opportunity to depict a new range of scenes and subjects pulled from the war’s headlines. Artists looked to traditional genres, such as kabuki and warrior prints, adapting them to new and literally never-before-seen forms: the riverside fireworks of the Edo period, for example, provided formal artistic precedents for the massive explosions of the Sino-Japanese War, which also made the events an easily adaptable subject for one of the Pain Fireworks Company’s “pyro-spectacles.”
In the thirty years preceding the Sino-Japanese War, Japan had experienced an unprecedented period of technological advancement. The military now wore Western-style uniforms and were outfitted with modern firearms and sabers instead of traditional weapons. Modern technology and modern battles were depicted in styles that were at once influenced by Japan’s recent contact with Western art, and strongly rooted in the national pictorial tradition. These prints, called sensō-e (war pictures), are themselves relics of technical innovation, in that they often feature elaborate printing techniques and vibrant new inks.
Artists and publishers also benefited from the repeal of Japan’s strict censorship laws in 1872. With these laws no longer in place, prints could be more lavish than ever before, and artists were free to depict current events—a practice that had been forbidden under censorship legislation.
Ruth S. Nelkin’s donation of Sino-Japanese War prints to the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College in 2000 offers a comprehensive overview of the military action of the war, as well as a survey of the subjects, ideas, and attitudes conveyed in the prints of the era.
The Sino-Japanese War was Japan’s trial by fire: as several contemporary accounts put it, the war was the story of an underdog—Japan—besting an ancient adversary, emerging from the battle slightly bloody, but unbowed, and poised to assume the mantle of a modern imperial power. The Nelkin gift of prints documents this trial through images that are by turns propagandist, heroic, and sensitive, but always infused with an irresistible drama and power.
Of the prints presented here, thirty-five are bound together into an album not unlike an accordion book, with prints on both sides of a long folding sheet. Called A True Account of the Sino-Japanese War, no identical copies are known to exist, and the provenance is unclear. All of the designs (though not necessarily the specific prints) in the album were also sold as single images, impressions of which are individually housed in other collections, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In addition to the album, the Nelkin gift contains fifteen individual prints of the Sino-Japanese War.
Japanese prints were not typically bound into albums. A viewer might buy one triptych, or a few, but would not encounter the prints as a series of images chronicling an entire event. Each print would be a representation of a specific battle, or act of heroism, or exotic landscape. By compiling a large number of prints into one volume to create a narrative, the album itself becomes a spectacle. The Sino-Japanese War is condensed into an experience for the viewer. When the images stand alone, they tell their own stories. In an album, the prints speak to each other, giving one another context. Each work holds double meaning, both as an image alone, and an image in a larger narrative.
On view from September 3, 2014 – February 5, 2015, this special exhibition draws exclusively from Ruth S. Nelkin’s donation of prints to the Mead Art Museum. In addition to the physical installation at the Mead, Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle includes a digital exhibition in the form of this website (optimized for iPad viewing), featuring several woodblock triptychs, the special album described above, which is on display for the first time, and even a reproduction of the original pamphlet distributed at the Manhattan Beach “pyro-spectacle” staged by Pain’s Firework Company. This site, while ensuring the exhibition can be seen across the globe, allows viewers to explore the album, the loose prints, images of specific events, or the entire Nelkin gift of Sino-Japanese War prints in chronological order.
This exhibition, which is supported in part by the Hampshire College Institute for Curatorial Practice, has been co-curated by Bradley Bailey, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Postdoctoral Curatorial Teaching Fellow in Japanese Prints, and James Kelleher, Hampshire College ’17. Additional support for this exhibition has been provided by David W. Mesker (Class of 1953) Fund, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.
Questions or Comments?
For information on any of the prints in this exhibition, please contact the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College either by telephone or via the form below. Any of the objects in this exhibition are available for viewing upon request in the Mead’s William T. Green Study Room, which is open Monday–Friday, 9:00 AM–4:30 PM, by appointment only. More information about the Hampshire College Institute for Curatorial Practice can also be found below.
Mead Art Museum
Address: 41 Quadrangle Drive, Amherst, MA 01002
Phone: (413) 542-2335
Mead Art Museum Website
Hampshire College Institute for Curatorial Practice
Address: Hampshire College, 893 West Street, Amherst, MA 01002
Institute for Curatorial Practice Website