Ukiyo-e prints return from Japan for major exhibition a The Allen

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Ukiyo-e prints return from Japan for major exhibition a The Allen
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849), Fuji in Clear Weather (Red Fuji), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, early 1830s. Mary A. Ainsworth Bequest, 1950.711

OBERLIN, OH.- In 1950, the Allen Memorial Art Museum received a surprise gift of more than 1,500 Japanese woodblock prints featuring actors, courtesans, and landscapes of the “floating world” of 17th- to 19th-century Japan. This bequest became a cornerstone of the Allen’s renowned Asian art collection, and 200 of the works traveled back to Japan last year for a tour of museums in Chiba (near Tokyo), Shizuoka, and Osaka. Now more than 100 of these prints are on view in Ukiyo-e Prints from the Mary Ainsworth Collection, an Oberlin exhibition that runs through June 14, 2020.

Mary Andrews Ainsworth (1867–1950) graduated from Oberlin College in 1889 and made her first sea voyage to Japan in 1906. The country had recently emerged from centuries of isolation and was beginning a period of rapid industrial development. Ainsworth, however, was attracted to an earlier Japan: that of the Edo period (1603–1868). In this more peaceful era, a world of entertainment arose—ephemeral pursuits made even more popular through the wide distribution of color woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.”

“The Ainsworth collection represents the history and evolution of Japanese woodblock printmaking, with high-quality examples of the major subjects, styles, and artists of ukiyo-e. Together, they convey much of the richness and complexity of Japan’s print tradition,” said Kevin R. E. Greenwood, the Allen’s Joan L. Danforth Curator of Asian Art. “We were approached by one of Japan’s leading ukiyo-e scholars to do this exhibition, which confirms the importance of Ainsworth’s collection,” he said. “In the process of working together, we discovered some impressions not known in any other collections.”

Ukiyo-e Prints from the Mary Ainsworth Collection is presented in four sections that span the history of the medium. Early prints (1680–1770) were monochrome, often with hand-coloring added; the carbon-black ink was made from pine soot. Around 1745, with the invention of a way to register, or align, wooden blocks, artists such as Ishikawa Toyonobu began printing in two colors: red and green. These benizuri-e prints, or “crimson-printed pictures,” sometimes included a third color, yellow, brown, or indigo. In the 1760s, Suzuki Harunobu was the first major producer of prints using more than three blocks.

The second part of the show, Beauties and Actors (1770–1800), includes works by Kitagawa Utamaro, Chobunsai Eishi, and other artists who helped to popularize the many theaters, tea houses, and celebrities of the pleasure district in Edo (now Tokyo). Ukiyo-e artists not only made prints for sale to Japan’s growing merchant class, but also were hired to produce posters and advertisements for theatrical performances.

The third section, Hokusai and Kuniyoshi (1780–1850), highlights the rise of landscapes in Japanese printmaking, which was due in part to the introduction of a chemical pigment called Prussian blue. Six prints from Katsushika Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji are included, along with Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s prints of bridges, ferries, and heroes from history and legend.

The final section (1830–1858) is devoted to prints by Utagawa Hiroshige I. Works by this prolific artist comprise more than half of the Ainsworth collection. The exhibition presents 36 works by Hiroshige I, including nine from his 1830s series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and thirteen from his 1857 series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo—prime examples of some of the finest woodblock prints ever produced in Japan.

“This extensive exhibition and its accompanying catalogue have been years in coming to fruition,” said Andria Derstine, John G. W. Cowles Director of the Allen. “We are thrilled to present, for the first time in decades, such a large portion of our Ainsworth collection, both at the Allen and to enthusiastic audiences in Japan.”

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