(All images courtesy of Mead Art Museum)

Kobayashi Kiyochika’s woodblock print depicts a naval battle near Phung-tō in Korea during the Sino-Japanese War. It is part of an album published by Daikokuya Heikichi in 1895. (all images courtesy of Mead Art Museum)

When late 19th-century Japan fought China for control over Korea in what became known as the First Sino-Japanese War, its explosive naval and land battles offered printmakers sensational, politically gripping new subject matter. As a result, the traditional woodblock publishing industry known as ukiyo-e — then stagnating, due to the advent of lithography and photography — began to thrive.

The program for “Pain’s Superb Pyro-Spectacle: War Between China and Japan” (1895)

The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College now features an expansive collection of these historic Japanese prints in its exhibit Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle, which also includes a digital platform. The show’s title refers to an 1896 reenactment on a Manhattan beach of a battle that had taken place just a few months before in Korea, revealing the far-reaching intrigue that helped fuel the demand for such artwork. It also helped that, in 1872, Japan repealed a strict law forbidding artists from depicting current events. A morbid public curiosity and a favorable artistic climate converged to create a genre of war prints known as sensō-e, which would soon reappear during the Russo-Japanese War.

Aside from 15 woodblock prints, the show includes 35 never-before-seen images by Kobayashi Kiyochika, bound into an accordion-like book called A True Account of the Sino-Japanese War, published by Daikokuya Heikichi around 1895. The album is unusual, and not just because no identical copies have ever been found. As co-curators James Kelleher and Bradley Bailey explain in their online statement, such large series simply don’t exist: “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.”

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This 1894 polychrome woodblock triptych by Mizuno Toshikata was published by Akiyama Buemon and depicts the fall of Hoojō (Fenghuangcheng).

Taguchi Beisaku’s 1894 print, published by Inoue Kichijirō, depicts a soldier on top of the Genbu Gate in Pyongyang, when the Chinese surrendered the city on September 15, 1894.

The Battle of the Yalu River, or Yellow Sea, on September 17, 1894 resulted in the sinking of three Chinese warships — the Yang-wei, the Chao-yuen, and the King-yuen. Kobayashi Kiyochika’s polychrome woodblock print, published by Daikokuya Heikichi in 1894, shows the Chinese troops struggling to survive.

Einen’s woodblock print depicts the war hero Harada Jūkichi dragging a Chinese soldier by his ponytail after charging over the wall at Genbu Gate. It was published by Akiyama Buemon in 1894.

Japanese forces raise their flag over Ryūkō (Liugong) Island in this print by Kobayashi Kiyochika, published by Daikokuya Heikichi in 1895.

Part of his 1895 album “A True Account of the Sino-Japanese War,” Kobayashi Kiyochika’s image captures troops at Ikaiei Weihaiwei. This print, published by Inoue Kichijirō, features artificial aniline dyes, which were brighter than more traditional inks.

This print by Kobayashi Kiyochika, part of the album published by Daikokuya Heikichi in 1895, depicts the Japanese army attacking the Chinese camp.

A Japanese shell explodes in the Chinese camp at Kinshū (Jinzhou) in this print by Kobayashi Kiyochika, part of the album published by Daikokuya Heikichi in 1895.

Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle is on view at the Mead Art Museum (41 Quadrangle Drive, Amherst) through January 4, 2015.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

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