"The small size of this title may not lend to easy library circulation but it makes an excellent and affordable gift: over 270 prints are reproduced in full color, selected from the Institute's collection of woodblock prints, and provides a fine range of works from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. An excellent survey." Midwest Book Review
Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicagoby James T. Ulak
Another in the Abbeville's Tiny Folios series, this little book is a real gem. The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world's most beautiful and comprehensive collections of Japanese woodblock prints in the world. Clarence Buckingham, of the famed Chicago family, donated 12,000 prints alone. The book covers this exquisite collection of work from the 17th to
Another in the Abbeville's Tiny Folios series, this little book is a real gem. The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world's most beautiful and comprehensive collections of Japanese woodblock prints in the world. Clarence Buckingham, of the famed Chicago family, donated 12,000 prints alone. The book covers this exquisite collection of work from the 17th to 19th centuries in four sections: Primitives, Courtesans, Actors, and Landscapes. It includes work by well-known masters such as Hiroshige, Hokusia, and Utamaro, as well as lesser-known talents such as Shun'ei, Shunko, and Kiyonaga. While the trim size is small, none of the subtle colors, delicate paper texture, or intricate fabric design is lost.
Read an Excerpt
Japanese woodblock prints have been available to Westerners for slightly over one hundred years. For many, these works have supplied memorable visions of a complex, elusive, and exotic culture. Even when the artists’ names and the exact titles are unknown, the prints charm and inform. For most uninitiated viewers, the distinctions between Japanese art and the artistic traditions of China, Korea, and even Southeast Asia are blurred. But the Japanese print remains a comfortable point of recognition, particularly through a handful of popular images, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa (page 268).
The major collections of Japanese prints in Europe and America rival and often exceed, in quantity and quality, those found in Japan. A significant portion of Japan’s artistic legacy was exported, and its appreciation, both popular and scholarly, was conceded to the West. In 1854 Japan concluded a treaty with the United States that granted trade and fueling ports to the fledgling but ominously powerful Western nation. In short order, similar agreements were signed with Russia, England, and the Netherlands. Since the mid-seventeenth century, Japan had enforced an isolationism that allowed only a trickle of trade with the West. When it finally conceded to the West, Japan was in a state of political upheaval. Within two decades of the first Western incursions, a new form of government was in place. Ostensibly restoring imperial rule after centuries of shogun or military dictatorship, the new government was in fact evolving into a kind of constitutional monarchy. The imperial line remained a symbolic rallying point, but real power was distributed regionally and exercised through a parliament and a central bureaucracy.
For the first time in more than two hundred years, Japan was exposed to a curious outside world. Having observed colonial exploitation throughout East Asia, Japan was intent on achieving economic and military parity with the countries who navies cruised at will in Asian waters. By the turn of the century it had mustered enough industrial capacity to gain the attention of its perceived rivals. It also waged war with China (1894-95) and achieved a stalemate in a war with Russia (1904-5), during which it destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Straits of Tsukushima (1905)a military achievement that forced the West to acknowledge Japan’s naval sophistication.
By the 1880s an increasing amount of Japanese religious and secular art was available on the international market. Two important influences contributed to this phenomenon. The first was Japan’s ambiguous attitude toward its own cultural heritage, a tradition that some viewed as a stumbling block to modernization. There was no wholesale rejection of the past, but as the nation’s elite focused on the mastery of foreign cultural models, indigenous art, both ancient and contemporary, suffered a period of neglect. Some of this neglect was longstanding, due in equal parts to the costliness of preservation and to a kind of dismissive familiarity. Temples crumbled, the importance of certain religious icons was overlooked, and previously valued works found their way onto the international market. The second cause for the unprecedented availability of Japanese art abroad was the institutional suppression of Buddhism. The new nationalist government curtailed the favorable tax arrangements long enjoyed by Buddhism, and temples were forced to relinquish considerable landholdings. In many cases, these reforms necessitated the sale of religious icons. To be sure, knowledgeable Japanese connoisseurs, collectors, and purveyors of fine art continued to pursue their interests. But a national attentiveness to the value of the country’s artistic heritage and the need to preserve it was still years in the future.
In counterbalance to this domestic trend was the growing critical and popular attention to Japanese art by the international marketan attention that both pleased and astounded the Japanese. Competent historical surveys were published, in Europe and in the United States, that identified and appraised the landmarks of Japanese art for the Western reader. These and other efforts, together with the availability of Japanese paintings, prints, and sculptures in the West, slowly established Japanese art as one of the world’s great art traditions.
The woodblock print had an especially strong appeal to Westerners. Inexpensive and portable, prints offered a window on a mysterious culture, although their reportorial value was seldom as accurate as commonly imagined. The world depicted in the prints was often highly idealizedgenerally the circumscribed sphere of urban sensual pleasures. Many sophisticated Western collectors could understand the woodblock print in ways unfamiliar to their Japanese counterparts. Since appreciation of prints was a well-established element of Western connoisseurship, collectors knowledgeable about European masters were well equipped to make discerning formal analyses of Japanese woodblock prints. Usually unencumbered by a knowledge of Japan’s language or history, early collectors easily resisted the temptation (characteristic of some scholars today) to relegate prints to the status of documents.
The idea that the Japanese at the turn of the century did not appreciate the woodblock print is contradicted by the existence of so many refined works, particularly the polychrome images of theater, beautiful women, and landscapes produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, there was strong resistance to admitting the woodblock print into the pantheon of Japanese fine art. Just as the industrial and military sectors of Japan were adapting the organizational techniques of the West, so universities were slowly integrating Western academic methodology into the fabric of Japanese education. In defining a history of Japanese art, academics and critics credited the court-dominated art and aesthetic sensibility of the Heian period (794-1185) as the highest achievement in Japanese artJapan’s “classical” period. In contrast, standard woodblock prints were regarded as an expression of the bourgeois taste of a newly moneyed merchant class. Prints represented the antithesis of the reserved elegance that was lauded as “courtly” taste, and their easy availability and rather common subject matter further diminished their perceived importance. Prints were granted a tiny niche in the historical chronology, but no serious scholar based his reputation on their study.
Western collectors, however, were either unaware of or undeterred by Japanese reservations. The impact of the Japanese print on American and European painting, architecture, and decorative art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been extensively documented. The rage for japonisme, whether expressed through outright copying or more subtle integration of Japanese elements, influenced many Western creations. The composition, colors, and content of Japanese prints inspired works by Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James McNeill Whistler, and many others.
Meet the Author
James T. Ulak, formerly a curator at The Art Institute of Chicago, now lives in Washington, D.C.
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