There are many reasons to visit " 'Japan Is the Key ...': Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900-1920" at Carnegie Museum of Art.
The first, although not the motivation for the exhibition, is the beauty of the works displayed, products of master craftsmanship and a venerable aesthetic tradition, heightened by exotic qualities of place and time.
Secondly, it's a rare opportunity to see the woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) and ivory carvings (okimono) together, as most of the latter are in the collection of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. This exhibition allows for cross-media comparisons of subject matter as well as of stylistic choices such as in the rendering of a fish net, feathers or drapery folds. (Note the feathers of the ivory eagle in the first gallery and the embossed feathers nearby of "An Eagle Attacking a Monkey Under a Pine Tree.")
A third reason is the fascinating inspiration for the exhibition, the backstories of how the works came to the Carnegie Institute (now the Museums of Art and Natural History) at the beginning of the 20th century. The exhibition title is drawn from the assertion that "Japan is the key to the Orient" made by Pittsburgh industrialist H.J. Heinz, who collected the ivories. The other key player is Sadakichi Hartmann, who is credited with guiding early exhibitions of Japanese prints and avant-garde photography at Carnegie Institute.
A fourth reason derives from the third and is an example of the transparency that the museum has championed in recent years. The curators go behind the scenes of building a collection and acknowledge that even the most diligent institutions may make mistakes. They illustrate this by pointing out that prints purchased on Hartmann's advice were later found to be of dubious quality.
Finally, underlying all of this, is the inherent significance of arts culture and the various roles it has played as long as people have been intrigued by difference. Goods, including art and functional craft, have traveled the globe through mercantile exchange, the pursuit of scholars and conquest. The exhibition speaks to such historic relationships. In contemporary times, add the potential for diplomacy as objects become agents of understanding between groups (a timely example is the "Roads to Arabia" exhibition recently opened at Carnegie Museum of Natural History).
This diplomatic component was the basis for a discussion I enjoyed with Waqas Banoori, editor of the Independent Press Network of Pakistan, who is visiting the Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly-Daniel Pearl-Saleem Shahzad Press Fellow. He toured the Carnegie exhibition and spoke with the curators, and shares some of his impressions in an article that appears on post-gazette.com.
In the early 1900s, Heinz traveled to Japan and China on behalf of his business interests and also in support of Christian ministry work being carried out in the Far East. He began collecting ivory sculptures, which he at first loaned to the Carnegie Institute, cared for as honorary curator and eventually gifted to the institution. Most of the sculpture is figural, including a fisherman and child catching an eel, an indigenous Ainu hunter and sumo wrestlers. The symbology of a "Long Procession of Toads," a piece with multiple figures that carry swords, flags and a sling full of little ones, is speculative but suggests travel, perhaps for battle, the label says.
A tour de force life-sized eagle was purchased by Heinz for the museum in 1913. (In light of current illicit trafficking in ivory, the museum assures visitors that the Heinz ivories were collected before the United States passed laws restricting the import and sale of ivory.)
Hartmann, of Japanese and German parentage, was a poet and critic who was influential in steering the museum toward early acquisition of Japanese prints.
Both men saw modernity in the blend of Asian tradition and avant-garde Western ideas reflected in such arts and extrapolated from that Japan's potential as a global leader of change. Unfortunately, Hartmann's scholarship did not match his enthusiasm, and a visiting curator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1917 deemed a number of the prints as unworthy. Most were ordered destroyed by the museum director. "Japan Is the Key" curators Louise Lippincott, Carnegie curator of fine art, and curatorial assistant Akemi May have included some of the survivors to illustrate the visual difference between a properly struck and colored print and those rejected.
Mistakes also arise from cultural gaps. The print "The Poet Ono no Takamura (Sangi Takamura)" was originally referred to as "Pearl Divers" after the women who occupy the foreground. Later, its true subject was discovered to be the poet shown in a distant boat.
The prints exhibited, for the most part, were purchased shortly after by a curator with expertise. These include the significant and starkly lovely "South Wind, Clear Dawn" (Gaifu kaisei) by master Hokusai, a view of Mount Fuji represented in blues and grays that is better known in an earlier incarnation as "Red Fuji." Other important artists include Utamaro and Hiroshige.
Another example of museum transparency is articulating that much is unknown about the works in the exhibition. Further study will reveal which ones derive from legend, history, literature, parody and the like. The curators humbly stop short of detailing the huge amount of scholarship that supports each fully fleshed museum exhibition and the years of study required to become an expert in a given field. In time, other specialists will look at these objects and add to our understanding.
The intrigue compounds one's appreciation of the works in this unique exhibition, but the carry away for most visitors will be visual images such as a delicately carved butterfly alighting on a young woman's shoulder or a driving rainstorm that masterfully both obliterates and defines the scene within.
"Japan" continues through July 21. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, and until 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $17.95; seniors $14.95; students and ages 3 to18, $11.95; under 3 and members free. Information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published July 14, 2013 4:00 AM