In the spring of 2003, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery received a bequest of more than 4,500 woodblock prints, representing 240 artists, from the world-renowned Robert O. Muller Collection of Japanese prints. Muller (1911–2003) was a Connecticut-based collector who over the course of seventy years had assembled one of the world’s finest collections of Japanese prints from the late 1860s through the 1940s. This exhibition presented approximately 150 of these prints in a series of thematic categories that had particular resonance with Muller: the rendering of light in various atmospheric conditions; depictions of birds and beasts; theatricality, whether specific to the Japanese stage or in the more general sense of, narrative style; images of female beauty; and, printing technique in the service of effect. The prints were complemented by some paintings also drawn from Muller’s holdings.
Muller collected in two distinct yet related areas. The first included the eclectic style of print that emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century—an era of experimentation that produced such diverse talents as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–92), who was famed for his flamboyant treatments of legend and historical events, and Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), whose studies in light and shadow were offered as an aesthetic alternative to the photograph. The second area of the Muller’s collection comprises the world’s most important grouping of prints created in the shin-hanga (new print) style. Shin-hanga was an entrepreneurial creation of the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo in the first decade of the 20th century. Watanabe managed a coterie of designer/artists who adapted traditional, idealized print subjects—theater, the pleasure quarters, bird and flower and landscape—to modern tastes. Included in the collection are superb representations of female beauty by Ito Shinsui (1898–1972), camp and vamping kabuki actors in male and female roles presented in exceptional designs by Yoshikawa Kanpo (1894–1979) and Natori Shunsen (1886–1960), the romanticized country and city views of Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) and numerous bird studies by Ohara Koson (1877–1945).