Those who have seen Frank Brangwyn’s 1930s murals at Rockefeller Center, a muted scene of finding truth through Christ that’s meant to harmonize with Jose Maria Sert’s more secular and striking fresco of American progress, may be surprised that Brangwyn was a devoted apprentice of William Morris, and brought his printmaking background to a vibrant East–West collaboration in the 1920s. This more experimental aspect of his career often goes overlooked as these prints, which were created with Japanese artist Yoshijiro Urushibara, are not frequently on view. Sheer Pleasure: Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan, now at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, celebrates this moment of exchange, with some works exhibited to the public for the first time.
Mark Hudson noted in his review for the Telegraph that Brangwyn made a significant donation of his work and collection of Japanese art to the gallery as a way of repaying his mentor Morris, for whom he apprenticed from 1882 to 1884. Like Morris, Brangwyn was interested in the accessibility of art, calling his donation “a humble offering to the people of Walthamstow in the hope that they will enjoy art and remember Morris.” Now, 150 years after Brangwyn’s birth in 1867, the objects can help exalt his own legacy.
Brangwyn met Yoshijiro Urushibara in the 1910s, after Urushibara had arrived in London to demonstrate woodblock production at the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition in 1910. Sheer Pleasure includes sketches, notes, and prints from their collaboration, such as the 1924 picture “The Devil’s Bridge,” where the layered style of Japanese prints adds depth to a calamitous vista of the broken bridge swarmed with silhouettes, and the inky 1919 series of images of Bruges. Brangwyn was born in the Belgian city, and Urushibara’s color woodcuts gave his designs a deeply tonal texture. “We all know the famous names associated with Japanese prints, Hokusai, Hiroshige, but we rarely have the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of the craftsmen behind the artworks,” painter and printmaker Rebecca Salter, who is showing work she made with Kyoto’s Sato Woodblock Workshop alongside Sheer Pleasure, said in a statement.
As for the title of the exhibition, it refers to Brangwyn’s failed attempt to take his collaborative interest in Japan even further, by designing a Western art gallery in Tokyo called the Sheer Pleasure Pavilion. Alas, the pavilion’s patron, shipping tycoon Kojiro Matsukata, fell on hard times with the 1927 economic crisis and the project fell through; illustrations in the exhibition show its never-built elegance. By the time Brangwyn died in 1956, he was something of a recluse, never even seeing those Rockefeller Murals in New York after their installation. Urushibara, meanwhile, continued to work in Europe until he was “involuntarily repatriated” from France to Japan in 1940. Sheer Pleasure brings together some examples from their partnership, as well as other Japanese artworks from Brangwyn’s collection, visualizing this early 20th-century bridge between two distinct printmaking traditions.
Sheer Pleasure: Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan continues through May 14 at William Morris Gallery (Lloyd Park, Forest Road Walthamstow, London, UK).