Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700

Media preview: Monday, September 9, 9 a.m. Call 202.357.4880 ext. 218 to attend.

Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints from the Anne Van Biema Collection

A large selection of stunningly dramatic Japanese woodblock prints, on loan from the collection of a distinguished connoisseur, will be on view in two rotations at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) from Sept. 15, 2002 through Jan. 19, 2003.

“Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints from the Anne van Biema Collection” exhibits 138 stellar prints dating from the 1720s through the late 19th century, when the art of woodblock printing was at its height in Japan. Included are numerous works featuring stars of the Kabuki theater, as well as others portraying popular classical themes from literature and poetry, landscapes, animals and beautiful women.

“Masterful Illusions” celebrates Anne van Biema’s exceptionally generous commitment to support research, publication, exhibitions and scholarly programs on Japanese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through her present and future gifts, which include the bequest of her Japanese print collection to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Beginning in the early 17th century, highly stylized Kabuki plays performed by male actors in the “ukiyo” (floating world)—the theater and pleasure quarters of Edo, Osaka and Kyoto—became a wildly popular entertainment. Wearing exaggerated make-up, wigs and elaborate costumes signifying their character roles and theatrical family lineage, and playing both men and women, many achieved superstar status comparable to the Tom Cruises of our day. Playing as many as nine roles in one play, each actor was expected to create new interpretations with each performance.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, fully costumed stars, dramatically posed as characters in famous theatrical scenes, became a popular subject for artists, who created elaborate designs that were executed by skilled woodblock engravers and printers. Produced for the most part in huge runs of single sheets, each costing as little as a bowl of noodles, these colorful, bold and beautifully decorative prints functioned as posters and pinups or were collected in albums by adoring fans. Many were discarded as they became torn and faded. However, “their aesthetic qualities were readily recognized by Western scholars and collectors, including artists such as James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and the Impressionists, whose ideas and practice were profoundly affected by the color and composition of the prints,” says curator Ann Yonemura. “As this work became better known and appreciated, the cost of acquiring the best of these has risen, as has competition for the finest examples.” The prints on view at the Sackler in “Masterful Illusions” include examples by leading artists and reflect the personal taste and selections of Anne van Biema, who began to collect Japanese prints in the early 1960s.

On view are prints picturing popular theatrical themes such as tragic love affairs ending in double suicides, and stories of deceased or wronged lovers appearing in a cloud of smoke, as well as many chronicling the escapades of legendary warriors. Other prints on view depict popular themes from literature and poetry and include works from Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s (1797–1861) multi-part interpretation of the Chinese tale “One Hundred Eight Heroes of a Popular Water Margin,” as well as one print from Katsushika Hokusai ‘s (1760–1849) series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” A beautiful impression of a Hokusai print featuring wisteria, a wagtail sparrow and a Chinese poem demonstrates how advances in woodblock print technology led to the production of exceptionally high-quality prints. Another abstract image of a bat, considered to be a symbol of good luck in both China and Japan, is representative of the many striking prints of animals designed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858).

Prints by Kuniyoshi and Kawanabe Kyosai (1831–1889) feature Shoki, the legendary hero and demon queller, whose image, painted in red, was often hung in homes as a talisman against smallpox. Shoki was also associated with the Boys’ Festival in the month of May. Kyosai’s calendar page depiction featuring the word “May” in English lettering is an early example of the intrigue foreign words held for the Japanese public. A print by Isoda Koryusai (1735–1790) of famous and beautiful high-class courtesans from the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters is one of 150 produced in the longest series of ukiyo-e prints ever made.

Other artists featured include Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769–1825), as well as Katsukawa Shun’ei (1762–1819), Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–1992), Katsukawa Shunko (1743–1812), Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), and the Osaka arists, Hokushu (active 1810–1832) and Hokuei (flourished ca. 1824–1837).

This exhibition is supported by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Major funding for research and publication has been provided by Anne van Biema.

A fully illustrated catalog will be available during the exhibition from the gallery shops.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at