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October 6, 2004On November 6, with the opening of “Dream Worlds: Modern Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Robert O. Muller Collection,” visitors to the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will have their first opportunity to see approximately 160 prints from Muller’s remarkable bequest—considered one of the world’s finest collections of Japanese prints from the late 1860s through the 1940s. The exhibition—the first in a series of exhibitions featuring Muller’s prints—closes Jan. 2, 2005.
Muller (1911–2003), who bequeathed his collection of more than 4,500 Japanese woodblock prints, representing 240 artists to the Sackler Gallery, fell in love with this art form as a young man when he stumbled upon a print in a New York shop window. He went inside and bought the print—a night scene of a bridge by Kawase Hasui (1883–1957)—with his $5 monthly student allowance. During a long and productive lifetime, Muller, who owned a print and framing shop in New Haven, Conn. and lived on a nearby farm, became an astute collector, whose purchases and frequent commissions stimulated the renewal and development of the art of Japanese woodblock printing during the early 20th century.
The prints in “Dream Worlds” are presented 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, and images of female beauty. Attention is paid to the extraordinary technical accomplishments of the artist and printmakers. The prints are complemented by several paintings selected from Muller’s holdings.
At the time that Muller began his collection in the early 1930s, Japanese society had already gone through a period of rapid change that had begun with its opening to the West in 1853. Exquisitely designed woodblock prints featuring kabuki actors and women of the pleasure quarters that had flourished as pin-ups during the Edo period (1615–1868) could no longer compete with modern mass produced imagery. Graphic artists had turned for work to the world of newspapers and magazines and the photograph was coming into its own.
This exhibition shows how toward the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th centuries, new techniques and Western styles of composition—including atmospheric land and cityscapes reminiscent of Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler—were melded with the Japanese idiom, creating a new market for the traditional medium of woodblock prints. A rising nationalism and isolationism just prior to World War II led to increased nostalgia for the myth of a placid pastoral past, and prints were conscripted as illustration. The traditional categories of woodblock prints—beauties of the pleasure quarters, actors, and birds and flowers—were also revived and refashioned for a contemporary audience to include modern technological emblems such as cars and trains, thereby presenting a romanticized view of the present that wrapped change in a soft cushion of the familiar.
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 early era of experimentation that produced such diverse talents as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), 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 Muller’s collection became the world’s most important grouping of prints created in the “shin-hanga” (new print) style, an entrepreneurial creation of the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo in the first decade of the 20th century. As a young man, Watanabe had worked for an art dealer named Kobayashi Bunshichi, acquired a well-honed feeling for the western market, and sensed that there was a niche both at home and abroad for a new kind of Japanese print. Imitating the western model of limited editions, Watanabe hired and managed a coterie of outstanding designer/artists and printers, some of whom were already well-known painters. All were adept at tailoring traditional, idealized print subjects to modern tastes. Woodblock prints, which had never before been accepted as a major art form, began to take on a new status, best symbolized perhaps by the acceptance of five prints of sail boats by Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) who had studied in the Berkshires with the American naturalists, into an Imperially- sponsored salon previously confined to paintings.
The exhibition is arranged by subject matter and begins with Muller’s first acquisition. Works on view include:
- Remarkable renderings of light and weather conditions and romanticized country and city views by Kawase Hasui (1883–1957), Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950) and Ito Shinsui (1898–1972)
- Superb representations of female beauty, featuring both the classical subject of the gentle entertainer by Ito Shinsui Hashiguchi Goyo (1880–1921) and Torii Kotondo (1900–1976), as well as the modern woman by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1897–1948)
- Camp and vamping kabuki actors in male and female roles presented in exceptional designs by Yoshikawa Kampo (1894–1979), Natori Shunsen (1886–1960), Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892)
- Several exquisitely detailed bird studies, especially crows, by Watanabe Seitei (1851–1918) and Ohara Koson (1877–1945) that reflect both the Japanese fondness for representing sentient natural life and Muller’s own love of nature, as well as a print by Koson, showing the Japanese penchant for rendering animals in human roles as a commentary on human foibles
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 Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily except Wednesdays and federal holidays. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian metrorail station on the blue and orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ Web site at asia.si.edu.