Exhibition | Living for the Moment: Japanese Prints

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 9, 2015

Press release (5 October 2015) from LACMA:

Living for the Moment: Japanese Prints from the Barbara S. Bowman Collection
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 11 October 2015 — 1 May 2016

Suzuki Harunobu, Lucky Dream for the New Year: Mt. Fuji, Falcon, and Eggplants, ca. 1768–69 (promised gift of Barbara S. Bowman, Museum Associates/LACMA).

Suzuki Harunobu, Lucky Dream for the New Year: Mt. Fuji, Falcon, and Eggplants, ca. 1768–69 (promised gift of Barbara S. Bowman, Museum Associates/LACMA).

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Living for the Moment: Japanese Prints from the Barbara S. Bowman Collection. The exhibition features over 100 prints of transformative promised gifts of Japanese works to LACMA, representing the work of 32 artists. Included are examples of rare early prints of the ukiyo-e genre (pictures of the floating world); works from the golden age of ukiyo-e at the end of the eighteenth century by Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Katsukawa Shunshō; and nineteenth-century prints by great masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and others.

Barbara S. Bowman (née Safan) was born in Los Angeles in 1925 and attended the University of Southern California (USC) for a degree in fine art. Barbara became captivated by Japanese woodblock prints early on after receiving two prints as a gift from her mother. She and her husband Morton visited Japan for the first time in 1962, and by 1978 she began actively collecting Japanese woodblock prints. Never intending to have an encyclopedic collection, Barbara sought out scenic designs in superb condition with stellar impressions, as she held the printing process in high esteem. The power of line and the importance of color were and remain defining factors of the collection. Assembled over 35 years, the Barbara S. Bowman Collection includes some of the finest impressions available.

Living for the Moment represents a momentous gift to the Japanese Art Department of LACMA, in that we can now present the history of Japanese prints with high-quality works of art,” remarks Hollis Goodall, Curator of Japanese Art at LACMA.

Living for the Moment is presented in two locations at LACMA. Commercially printed ukiyo-e, mostly produced in Edo (modern Tokyo), will be displayed chronologically and by artistic group in the Ahmanson Building, level 2. Privately published surimono and theatrical prints of Osaka are installed in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, level 3.

Ukiyo-e developed as an independent genre in painting and book illustration by the late 1600s. The idea of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo), initially based on a Buddhist phrase referring to the transience of life, was adopted by popular writers to evoke fleeting moments of beauty and pleasure that provided distraction from the cares of a regimented society. Book illustrations on these topics gained such popularity that artists began creating single-sheet woodblock prints to sell. Edo became the center for the production of ukiyo-e prints. In response to government restrictions placed on floating world subject matter in the early 1800s, artists explored new topics such as travel and heroes of ancient lore. Prints were also a perfect medium for artistic experimentation. After a breakthrough by Suzuki Harunobu in 1765, which allowed the production of multiblock color prints, artists explored realism, nature, perspective, framing, and light with a level of intensity that spread their influence not only across Japan but also, after the country opened to foreign trade in 1868, to Europe. There, the Impressionists, struck by the Japanese printmakers’ use of color, atmosphere, and composition, created a watershed style embarking upon Modernism.

The artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) was from a samurai family with an inherited position as a fire man in Edo Castle. In 1823 he passed on this job to a relative and became a full-time artist, having been trained by the Utagawa school master, Toyohiro (1773–1828). Hiroshige excelled at evoking the human experience of the landscape, with its varying seasons, times of day, and weather events. His sensitivity toward shifting light is best seen in early impressions of prints where he supervised color choice, as exemplified by his finest print in the Bowman collection entitled, Minowa, Kanasugi, and Mikawashima (1857). In this print, a broad strip of pink marks the horizon. The still-dark middle ground indicates light at daybreak which has not reached the nearby plains, and roofs in the distance already reflect the growing daylight. In his late years, Hiroshige developed a unique viewpoint, looking beyond an object set close at hand to a landscape which receded into deep distance. His framing of subjects directly influenced the Impressionists and Post- Impressionists in Europe, and later Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States.

The majority of ukiyo-e prints were produced by publishers for general sale. Government censors enforced laws restricting the subject matter of prints and their price, by limiting the number of blocks and quality of pigments. These laws were not applied to private groups, who made prints called surimono (printed things) for distribution to a specified clientele. These groups mostly consisted of poets of kyōka (mad verse), which was based on courtly poetry but played with the rules of language and content. Fan clubs for musicians and actors also occasionally commissioned surimono. The heyday of surimono lasted from the late 1700s through the first third of the 1800s, with the majority produced after 1800. These prints were most frequently distributed at the New Year to kyōka group members and would often bear poems related to that season. Printed on thick, luxurious paper, surimono often featured richly hued dyes too expensive for general use and metals such as brass, tin, and copper. Viewing these prints closely, one may also detect exquisite embossed details and areas that mimic the appearance of lacquer.

Surimono artists, led by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), his followers, and contemporaries, drew designs based on the poetry to be printed on the surimono, either portraying, embellishing, or playfully skewing the content with their illustrations. The design was there for the enhancement of the poetry, rather than vice versa. Hokusai’s Salt Shells (Shiogai) from 1821, for example, is a still life that depicts a box of open salt cakes, a pipe case and tobacco pouch attached to a netsuke container, and a small pine tree planted in a bowl. The work is from a series of 36 surimono that included verse by many followers of the noted contemporary poet Yomo no Magao. The series title and poem refer to the New Year game of matching bifurcated shells, each containing a segment of the same poem.

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The catalogue is published by Prestel:

Hollis Goodman with an essay by Joan B. Mirviss, Living for the Moment: Japanese Prints from the Barbara S. Bowman Collection (London: Prestel, 2015), 184 pages, ISBN: 978-3791354729, $65 / £35.

423_5472_159590_xxlSpanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the exquisite examples of Japanese prints included in this book offer insights into the history of an art form and vision that is distinctively Japanese and was highly inspirational to later European painters. Polychrome prints, or ukiyo-e, first appeared in Japan in the late 18th century. Delicately hued and intricate, they depicted landscapes, scenes, and figures that epitomized the country’s idea of ‘the floating world’: a place whose denizens lived for the moment and appreciated the pleasures of the natural world. This volume surveys the prominent Barbara S. Bowman collection of prints notable for a number of reasons: an excellently preserved print of Lucky Dream for the New Year: Mount Fuji, Falcon, and Eggplants by Suzuki Harunobu; a number of surimono, or privately published prints that were created with unusually luxurious materials; and numerous works by Hiroshige and Hokusai, who are considered the masters of the art form. Each of the over one hundred prints in this book is reproduced in large color plates that highlight their subtle beauty and charm and are accompanied by extensive analysis of the pieces’ remarkable qualities. This comprehensive overview of the collection by LACMA curator Hollis Goodall addresses the significance and history of the Bowman collection and the many ways it enhances the museum’s extensive holdings of Japanese art.

Hollis Goodall is curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


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