Commentary: Another view of ‘Japan Is the Key …’


 A woodcut on paper by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is among the Japanese prints in an exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Art.
By Waqas Banoori
Published in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 17, 2013.

The Carnegie Museum of Art exhibits Japanese prints and ivories collected between 1900 and 1920 by industrialist H. J. Heinz and poet Sadakichi Hartmann in ” ‘Japan Is the Key …’: Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900-1920.”

“These kinds of prints were very popular in Europe and the United States beginning in the 1860s, and they were exported from Japan in huge quantities,” says Louise Lippincott, Carnegie curator of fine art. “As a result, the collections in Europe and the U.S. are better than the collections in Japan.”

The ivories were collected by Heinz, and Hartmann was instrumental in the purchase of many of the prints.

The exhibition is a wonderful display of contemporaneous Japanese arts in an era when European arts were going through an aesthetic crisis and American arts were facing a controversy of artistic values.

“Prints initially were made for Japanese people; however, the sculptures were made for the Westerners,” says Akemi May, fine art curatorial assistant.

The curators use the opportunity of the exhibition to illustrate mistakes that may be made by collectors. Exceptional early 20th-century Japanese prints are exhibited with a few pieces of poor quality that do not reflect the originals’ true color or subject matter.

For instance, a print that depicts a woman sitting on a chair surrounded by smoke was originally titled “A Woman in a Hut Burning Wood to Drive Mosquitoes Away.” In reality, the image is part of a triptych, “The Apparition of Kannon,” which depicted a folk tale. The woman is the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon, who is watching an old hag in the other panels attack a pregnant woman to feed on her fetus’ blood. The colors in the secondary image appear faded compared to the original.

The grand ivory sculpture of an eagle is placed right at the beginning of the exhibition hall. One can see a number of ivory pieces placed around the room that include a group of frogs reflecting migration or even preparation for an assault. A number of other interesting sculptures can be found, taking one’s eye to the history of arts across the Pacific Ocean.

“In terms of composition, coloring and subject matter, Japanese art was very important for 19th-century and early 20th-century American and European artists. It’s really important in the development of a modern art style in the West,” says Ms. Lippincott.

She said key aspects of Japanese art such as the flat compositions, bright colors and strong lines all contribute to what we call modern art.

The exhibition “Japan Is the Key …” is a must-see for anyone with a taste for art, particularly the history of Japanese art. With a year and a half in research and preparation, the exhibition continues through Sunday.