An Art Reborn: Modern Japanese Prints from the AMAM Collection

Dee Perry–We're standing inside now the Ripin Gallery the site of "An Art Reborn: Modern Japanese Prints from the Allen." With us is Charles Mason, who is Curator of Asian Art and Adrianna Del Collo, Oberlin College senior who helped curate the exhibition as well.

Charles, let's talk first about the relationship between the museum and the school, what is that?

Charles Mason–OK, well the museum we see as a sort of laboratory for the entire college really. Where students from not only art history classes, but history classes, literature classes, and even science and math classes can come over here and use actual objects, works of arts, and cultural artifacts to get a new dimension on their learning experience.

DP–How do you decide which students get to curate a show each year?

CM–Students have to apply to us. We know them through our teaching. The curators teach at the college as well. So we get to know the students through the classes, and if they are sufficiently advanced, then they can apply to us to do a research project or if they're very advanced, they can do a curatorial project like Adrianna has done. She did all the research for the prints, she actually selected the prints, selected the order they were going to go in. She did all the curatorial tasks that I would do if I were going to put this show together myself and my role really was to say, "Here's the first thing you need to do, here's the second thing you need to do." She would go off and do them, come back and report to me. If it was in a satisfactory state, she would move on to the second task and so forth.

DP–Adrianna, let's have you speak for yourself now. Why did you decide to become an art major?

Adrianna Del Collo–Well, it was always an obvious choice for me, my uncle is actually a curator. He curates Yoko Ono's work, so I've always been around art. My parents always took me to museums when I was younger and it was something that appealed to me. So it was a natural choice.

DP–Once you were selected to curate this exhibition, how did you decide what you wanted to do?

ADC–The project was already planned on being executed. So I just moved into that. It wasn't my choice to do this show, although I would've chosen it had I known (laughs.) So it was already in place.

DP–The decision was made about the show, but were there decisions you had to make about order, about different movements, about different prints to choose?

ADC–Yeah, there were plenty of decisions. There was this empty space and I had to fill it in a way that made sense according to history. Something that any visitor would be able to come in and understand in a logical way. So the way I divided it is by different movements. I divided it also by artist in a generally chronological way - also aesthetically–so the prints look nice together.

DP–Give us a little bit about the history of Japanese printmaking. Is that an important art form?

ADC–It's extremely important and it's very historical. It began around the 1600's and that type of printmaking is very different from what you see today in contemporary printmaking. It was called ukiyo-e or "Prints of the Floating World", which were the most popular. It was basically a documentation of things that would go on in the pleasure quarters. So you'd have beautiful women of the geisha or just beautiful women, pictures of kabuki actors, landscapes. Basically printmaking was centered in the cities, in Edo in particular. During the meiji period, which is the mid-1800's to 1912, Japan had been closed to the west for a long period of time. In 1853, Matthew Perry came over with the warships and demanded that Japan open their ports. And so from that point on, it was called the meiji restoration, where there was rapid industrialization. The culture changed like that (snaps fingers). So prints changed then too because you had photo-mechanical ways of reproducing images so the print wasn't as necessary or as used. The quality declined, or it said that the quality declined but it just seems that there were a lot of changes. After that, you have in the taisho period... this actually...the print that we're...the artist that we're looking at now–Hashiguchi Goyo–his publisher is Watanabe Shozaburo and his vision was to bring back the quality that Japanese prints had previously. So you have a resurgence of prints based on older prints but have a modern feel to them with a really high quality.

"(Japanese printmaking is) extremely important and it's very historical. It began around the 1600's and that type of printmaking is very different from what you see today in contemporary printmaking."

DP–And this is the "New Print" movement that we're talking about?

ADC–This is the "New Print" movement–Shin-hanga.

DP–We're standing in front of a print now called Hiratsuka Castle and Adrianna, tell us something about the print itself and the artist.

ADC–The artist, Hiroshi Yoshida, was one of the first Shin-hanga artists and he helped to define what the movement was all about. You can see in this print that it's of Hiratsuka Castle. It's a sort of traditional subject matter. It's a landscape but you can notice in this print a lot of western influences. Yoshida traveled widely in the west and he actually met Monet. You can see Monet's influence in this. There's this big plum blossom tree that veils the castle. Blossoms are depicted in mass; they're massive quantities of blossoms that aren't defined. They're masses of color. That's something he was inspired to do from traveling in the west. It's a western convention. And so that was brought into the print to produce this effect. You can also see some reflections in the water in front of the castle. That also would've been influenced by western artists.

DP–I see there is another print of his, actually one on the wall and one next to the castle print. Is the dark background, the dark coloring something that's special to Yoshida Hiroshi or is that something that runs through the New Printmakers?

ADC–At this point in history, this sort of atmosphere, playing with atmosphere, depicting atmospheres that are darker or like in this print reflections in water, that was something that Shin-hanga artists began to experiment with. So it's new to this movement and it's something that's carried through in many other artists.

DP–Let's talk about the other school of printmaking –the Creative Print movement. That came after the New Print movement?

ADC– They developed simultaneously.

DP–We're standing now in front of one of the artists who was part of the Creative Print movement. And that movement was different from the New Print movement how?

ADC–The Creative Print movement was more based on western conceptions of what an artist is. So in the New Print movement which we just looked at, there would be a publisher, and the artist would make a sketch that the publisher basically ordered. Then there would be other people to carve the block and other people to print the block. So it was really a collaborative effort. Sosaku-hanga or the [Creative] Print movement the artists did everything. They carved their own blocks, they printed their own blocks, they decided what they wanted to produce. So that's more of a western idea of what an artist is. The artist is the creator.

DP–It's interesting that they developed around the same time, the two completely different schools of thought about printmaking. The artist that we're looking at now Sekino Junichiro, is he well known in the Creative Print movement or well known as a printmaker in general?

ADC–He is well known in the Creative Print movement, he's very well known. He's especially known for portraits and rooftops. That's how he's coined. So, this print is a print of a rooftop, it's just roof tiles. If you look close enough you can see a reflection of Mount Fuji upside down reflected in the rain on the roof tiles. I find this print to be particularly interesting because I think that he depicts tiles, roof tiles, so often because he sees it as a symbol for Japan, for Japanese-ness. I think that the juxtaposition of Mount Fuji with the roof tiles really hits that home because Mount Fuji is known to be a national symbol. So here we have it combined.

DP–In terms of printmaking in general, how does that fit into the Japanese tradition of art as a whole? Is it an important subset?

ADC–That's actually a really important question when you're talking about prints. Traditionally prints haven't necessarily been viewed as art by the Japanese. It was seen more as something middle class, more like posters really. So when these two movements occurred, it was by the Japanese took a while to catch hold. A lot of these prints were bought by western connoisseurs and collectors which is interesting that the market was abroad. The publisher, Watanabe Shozaburo of the shin-hanga or New Print movement, he recognized that there was a market abroad and really directed the prints he commissioned towards that. The printmakers of the Creative Print movement also were aware that reviving this medium would be challenging. Indeed they didn't make much money, it was a difficult life. But now they're being recognized more and more as artists.

DP–And in part due to exhibitions like this. Thank you Adrianna for talking with us about it.

ADC–Thank you.

DP–And thanks also to your mentor, Charles Mason, Curator of Asian Art here at Oberlin College. Thank you Charles.

CM–Thank you.

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