York’s other Gallery

Amy Milka swaps boob tubes for pashminas when she visits the city of York’s other Gallery

Contrary to student popular opinion, there are two Galleries in York. In one, you can expect to be doused in dubious champagne, and possibly even bodily fluids. In the other, you can expect to pass a leisurely Sunday afternoon and not spend the entirety of the next day cocooned in a duvet drinking Tetleys. Even the uninitiated (and in my case, ill-educated) must enjoy a quiet hour spent perusing the current exhibits at York Art Gallery. Equipped with a trusty pashmina, I decided to take a tour and learn a little something.

Amongst the stern portraits and modernist offerings nestles a small collection of colourful, thoughtful Japanese pieces from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to tempt the curious explorer. These mesmerising prints combine simple yet delicate representations of everyday occurrences in bold and bright hues. A depiction of a Japanese port buzzing with activity lies alongside scenes from the Zodiac and New Year celebrations. Along the walls of this tiny room, actors and courtesans go about their daily routines, and beautiful Japanese women make music, cook and prepare tea in the ancient Buddhist way.

A closer look reveals intricate patterning and exquisite detail, from the kimonos of the women to the exotic flowers. The collection is described as “simple beauty inspired by nature”, a refreshing change from studied portraits and family groups.

The prints themselves are testament to a tradition of innovation and ingenuity. Some are on wood, others crepe, to withstand wear and tear. They are interspersed with Japanese pottery, old and new, such as saki cups, dishes, and the traditional tea-making paraphernalia. These functional pieces reflect the theme of everyday life but are works of art in their own right, some of them offerings by the famous potter Shoji Hamada. The two complement each other well, and add another dimension to this journey into aesthetics and Japanese culture.

Many of the pieces on display are prime examples of the ukiyo-e movement, meaning “pictures of the floating world”. These prints reflect a growing culture of urban pleasures, but also the Japanese love of nature in its simplest form. This may seem paradoxical, but both aspects are exemplified in the work of one of the more famous artists in the collection, Ando Hiroshige. Such prints often focused on famous actors or geishas, and were even used as posters for theatre performances. The sharp lines and ingenious shading make it easy to see why.

Although a relatively small exhibition, the collection really is effective and inspiring. And as if that isn’t enough reason to pay a visit, entry is completely free. Even better, you don’t need a sequin boob tube to get into this Gallery.

Japanese Art in Life runs at the York Art Gallery until 04/02/07

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