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“Masterful Illusions:

Japanese Prints From the

Anne van Biema Collection”

At the Sackler Gallery to Jan. 19, 2003

As the title for a show of classic Japanese woodblock prints, “Masterful Illusions” is both bland and imprecise. Leaving aside the distinction between “masterly” and “masterful”—as a synonym for “skillful,” grammarians generally prefer the former—it’s not clear that Japanese printmakers had an interest in creating illusions. Japanese-film expert Donald Richie has noted that Asian art forms traditionally have been not representational but “presentational,” by which he means using “various stylizations, with no assumption that raw reality is being displayed.”

Japanese woodblock prints—often called ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world” of mutable pleasure—were developed as a mass-market form for the tastes of the country’s emerging middle class in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As such, they were considered slightly vulgar—and even a threat to the social order (as is anyone with a printing press in a totalitarian country, of course). And yet ukiyo-e was also traditionalist, drawing on venerable scroll-painting styles and well-established literary, religious, and mythological subjects. Images such as Utagawa Hiroshige’s ca. 1848-

1851 Famous Sites in Edo and Chapters From The Tale of Genji: Ferry on the Sumida River Matched With the “Floating Boat” Chapter combine scenes of everyday life—in this case, a woman leaving a boat in a snowstorm—with references to classic Japanese literature. If graceful prints like this one, which is featured in the show, look oddly modern to Western eyes, it’s because their stylization and economy preceded—and influenced—modern Western art.

Even people who’ve never entered a gallery of Asian art have been exposed to the influence of classic Japanese woodblocks, whether they know it or not. Such prints as Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave have entered the bank of internationally recognized images, and the effect of ukiyo-e’s angular compositions, subtle palette, and seemingly prescient blurring of the boundaries of high and low art can be seen in Whistler, Warhol, Hong Kong action movies, and Marvel Comics. It’s possible to imagine Frank Miller revamping Daredevil in the late ’70s based on a single print in “Masterful Illusions”: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1892 One Hundred Aspects of the Moon: Moon on Musashi Moor, a moody nighttime scene that is serene yet infused with energy in the coiled, almost human shape of a fox contemplating its reflection in a pond.

Of course, Miller derived his sinuous, elongated forms and vertical compositions not from classic prints but from manga, the contemporary Japanese comic books that preserve aspects of ukiyo-e’s style. The classic age of Japanese prints lasted little more than 100 years, from the first full-color prints in 1765 to the decline of the art under the pressure of Westernization in the late 19th century. That period is charted with reasonable thoroughness by “Masterful Illusions,” which is a selection of 138 prints—only half of them on display at a time—from the collection of New Yorker Anne van Biema. Assembled over a 40-year period, her more than 320 prints are promised to the Sackler Gallery, which is gradually expanding its limited holdings of Japanese art.

Van Biema’s collection begins with hand-colored woodblocks from the early 18th century, such as Okumura Toshinobu’s 1724 The Actors Sawamura Sojuro I as Katsumoto and Ichikawa Monnosuke I as Yoshimasa, and includes some of the first Japanese color prints, such as Suzuki Harunobu’s 1766-1767 Lovers With a Bird Cage, whose style shows a strong Chinese influence and whose hues are mostly metal- and earth-toned. Later pieces have a command of color that equals their mastery of line. Moon on Musashi Moor is predominantly gray but tinted by pastel blue and green and a hint of pink in the moon; Katsushika Hokusai’s early-19th-century Wisteria and Wagtail subordinates strong reds and greens to the varied grays of its central figure, a small bird. And Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s remarkably fluid ca. 1845 Shoki and Demon looks almost like a black-ink painting, but is accented by bits of blue (for a sword blade) and red (for the skin of the demon skulking in the background).

As printing technology developed, the ability to use larger blocks of deeper and brighter hues led to elaborate depictions of ornately patterned fabrics and such experiments as the wood-grain backdrop of Hokushu’s 1823 The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kan Shojo. Some garish later works even overwhelm their images with color. The openness and balance of the most effective ukiyo-e prints have aged far better than the deep reds and greens that were a novelty in mid-19th-century Japanese printing.

It’s appropriate that the oldest piece in “Masterful Illusions” is a depiction of actors, because van Biema’s collection is well outfitted with such images. Unlike most Western ukiyo-e connoisseurs, however, she owns many prints that celebrate the Kabuki stars of Osaka and Kyoto rather than Edo (later renamed Tokyo). Published in smaller quantities, Osaka prints

such as Hokushu’s 1830 The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Ishikawa Goemon Disguised as the Farmer Gosaku were often of higher quality than their Edo counterparts.

As that title suggests, Kabuki-star portraits show the performers onstage and sometimes in action. Combining what in the photographic era became the separate genres of pinup and action still, the prints represent their subjects in character, perhaps surrounded by large chunks of dialogue—as in Torii Kiyomasu II’s mid-1720s The Actor Yamashita Kinsaku I Performing the Tea Vendor’s Soliloquy—or with such bits of stage business as the large fire-breathing toad in Utagawa Toyokuni I’s 1809 The Actor Onoe Eizaburo I as a Magician With a Giant Toad. The goal is neither fantastic illusion nor realistic depiction: Just because Toyokuni was portraying a staged scene didn’t mean that he had to hide the fact he could draw a mean—and quite earthy—toad. In ukiyo-e, theatrical moments come alive, views of the natural world appear frozen and stagy, and both are rendered with a strong sense of design that emphasizes the abstract aspects of form and color.

The prints cited in this review will be on display to Nov. 18; on Nov. 21, a new selection will appear. Although it substitutes Isoda Koryusai’s Puppies in the Snow for the fire-breathing toad, the second round still has plenty of dragons, samurai, and other creatures from realms that may, or may not, be illusory. CP