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by P.H. Wells

Yesterday I went to an exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints at the Portland Art Museum. The collection dates from the mid-1600s, documenting kabuki theater and brothels — actors and prostitutes! — family life, earthquakes, military engagements.

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For three hundred years, Japanese printmaking was a collaborative art controlled by the publishers. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, things began to change. A museum panel informs us:

“Since the 1950s, nearly all contemporary prints are made by a single individual who controls the process from the initial design stage through the preparation of the medium to making the impression. The workshop system of the Edo period, in which publishers coordinated efforts between artists, carvers, and printers, has been virtually abandoned, and with it, the high degree of craft specialization. Today, print artists are self-taught or learn printmaking in art schools and universities. … It has… freed Japanese print artists to experiment with any printing process they choose….”

This, I think, describes the new class of independent filmmakers. Substitute “films” for “prints,” “Hollywood” for “Edo” (Tokyo) —

Since the early 2000s, nearly all contemporary films are made by a single individual who controls the process. The studio system of the Hollywood period has been virtually abandoned. Today, filmmakers are self-taught or learn filmmaking in film schools and lynda.com. It has freed contemporary filmmakers to experiment with any filmmaking process they choose.

And yet, nothing changes. Actors and prostitutes, family life, earthquakes, military engagements? Centuries roll by, but stories stay in the frame.

 © 2011 First Straw Films

Visit  The Artist’s Touch, The Craftsman’s Hand: Three Centuries of Japanese Prints from the Portland Art Museum, now through Jan. 22, 2012. Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97205.

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