Following a sell-out gallery exhibition in 2021, popular stallholder Alistair McDonald will return to the Japan Festival in 2022 with his unique Kiwi take on the Japanese woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e.

Alistair’s love affair with ukiyo-e – translated as “pictures of the floating world” –began in earnest in the late 1970’s when he saw an exhibition of fan works by Japanese master Ando Hiroshige at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  

Hiroshige (1797-1858), along with his early contemporary Hokusai (The Great Wave off Kanagawa) was one of the most popular ukiyo-e artists of his day. His genius for landscape composition came to the fore in his print series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō , based on his 1832 trip between Edo and Kyōto along the famed Tōkaidō highway.

“I love the simple line drawings of ukiyo-e, the bold flat colours, and the stories they tell of another era and culture,” Alistair says. “I try to imagine how Hiroshige would have seen modern Wellington and New Zealand if he had been alive today.”

Rather than carve out his work on woodblocks, Alistair takes the shortcut of using modern acrylic paints and a brush to create the effect of a woodblock print.

“I’ve had the advantage of being able to use the many artificial colour pigments that have been developed since the 1830’s when a lot of the ukiyo-e woodblocks were being produced,” he says.

Alistair’s acrylic works depict very recognisable Wellington scenes and landscapes in the style of ukiyo-e. Demure kimono-clad figures pass by Cuba Street’s iconic bucket fountain, or gaze down at the city from Mount Victoria. Hokusai’s famous Great Wave is pictured towering over Titahi Bay.

Alistair says that interpreting the ukiyo-e style in the New Zealand setting feels very natural to him. “One of the main functions of art is to help us imagine the world in a different way,” he says. “I hope my art does that.”

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