The centerpieces of From the Bronze Age of China to Japan's Floating World, now through October 18, 2009 at the Cantor Arts Center, are a handful of Chinese bronzes dated 1600-700 BCE. As the first things you see upon entering the Ruth Levison Halperin Gallery from the stairs of the Cantor's front entrance, they have been given a place of prominence. I guess I appreciate the historical importance of these somber pieces, and I find their forms to be perfectly admirable and appealing, but I have to confess that I was nowhere near as excited by these ancient artifacts as I was the profusion of woodblock prints in this modest and handsome show.
A pair of Chinese New Year's woodblocks from the first half of the 20th century caught my eye first. Printed sometime between 1911 and 1949, these prints are rich with gaudy colors and almost hallucinatory forms. Boy and Fish or Abundance is a good example of this genre, meant to ensure prosperity in the coming year. In it, a chubby, rosy-cheeked child is delighting in his grasp of an enormous, bug-eyed fish (a carp, to my untrained eye), which is almost as massive as he is. I particularly liked the lad's red lips, which are shameless in their projection of good health and prosperity.
Next to this exuberant piece are several more -- sober examples of Chinese woodblock styles. Everyone Hates the Traitor-thief Jiang (Chiang Kai-shek), by Gu Yiehou, is as unsubtle as its title suggests. Created after the close of World War II, the political cartoon depicts the U.S. war ally and his grotesque posse as betrayers, sycophants, and puppets -- in one case, literally. Equally propagandistic is Getting Back Our Food and Livestock, by Wo Zha from the same period. Gone are the garish hues of the New Year's prints or even the aforementioned cartoon. Instead, the artist gives us a stark black-and-white scene showing the explosive, blood-soaked liberation of goats and cattle from Japanese invaders.
For their part, the Japanese were equally fond of a good political cartoon. Battle of the Currencies, an 1873 print by Keisai Yoshiiku, is an early form of manga that shows British and Japanese currencies in surreal, hand-to-hand combat.
Other pieces suggest magical realism. My favorite object in this category -- indeed, in the entire show -- is Minamoto no Yorimitsu Striking at the Ground Spider, an 1892 woodblock by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. In it, a maniacal spider disguised as a Shinto priest is draping its sheet-like web over our hero, who is pulling his sword to subdue the monstrous creature. Get really close, and you can see an extraordinarily delicate textured pattern of squares within squares on the man's robe, which is a lovely contrast to the wood grain behind the beast. I can't tell you whether this late 19th-century print is a greater technical advance than a 3,000-year-old bronze serving dish; I'm hoping it doesn't matter.
From the Bronze Age of China to Japan's Floating World runs through October 18, 2009 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. For more information, visit museum.stanford.edu.