There are as many kinds of collections and reasons to collect as there are individuals collecting, although passion seems to be a universal driving force. The lenders to the exhibition "Modern Japanese Prints: 1868-1989," whose artworks complement those from the Carnegie collection, shared their motivations and how it all began.
Chatham College president Esther Barazzone was looking through a bin in an outdoor stall during a visit to San Francisco when she happened across a couple of prints that appealed to her, and they became her first purchases. That was about 20 years ago, and she now owns approximately 150 Meiji-era (1868-1912) or earlier prints.
"The problem with collecting," she says, "is it's like eating M&Ms -- there's always just one more."
Barazzone's field is European intellectual history, and the print subjects she's drawn to tend to be literary and historic. "My training as an academic is in the connection between culture and history, [which] the type of prints I collect would exemplify."
One of her favorite acquisitions, for example, featuring a woman wearing a "beautifully decorative robe" emerging from a river, is at first glance a straightforwardly "gorgeous print." But "Kiyohime Changing Into a Serpent at Hidaka River (No. 11)" by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, an artist prominent in Barazzone's collection, also depicts the story of the woman's forbidden love for a monk who swims across a river to escape her. As she swims after him she turns into a serpent, eventually wrapping herself around the temple bell he's hidden under and killing both of them "with the fire of her passion."
Of specific interest to Barazzone are depictions of foxes, considered changelings in Japanese folklore, and of oiwa, which she defines as the Japanese figure of a wronged woman. She points out that women generally are well represented in prints, many in strong roles such as warriors and intellectuals. Among such that she owns are those of an early woman poet and of a princess from a royal family facing down a ghost.
Barazzone is attracted by the appearance of a print, but the culture reflected in it is what makes that interest sustaining, she says.
This isn't the first time prints from Dr. Lila Penchansky's collection have been exhibited at Carnegie Museum. They formed a considerable portion of the 2005 exhibition "Kawase Hasui: Landscapes of Modern Japan," she says, and a few from that show are included in the current one. When she asked the curator why repeat, the answer was because people like them so much.
Hasui (1883-1957) is obviously a favorite of hers as well as of the public, and she designates his "Benten Pond, Shiba (Benten ike)" -- two kimono-clad women on a picturesque wooden bridge surrounded by a lush, pond-covering growth of blooming lotus -- "the prime print of my collection." It's No. 14 of a limited edition.
Penchansky discovered Japanese woodblock prints in 1980 when she was shopping for something different for a boyfriend who owned antiques. At a print shop in Oakland, she found two that she "loved." One went to the boyfriend and the other she kept. Later she married someone else but continued buying prints and eventually her husband pointed out that she was collecting.
"I really was acquiring" at that time, Penchansky says, buying prints she liked without knowing much about them. As she became more serious, she considered herself a collector and now owns approximately 300 prints.
While she's expanded her scope from 19th century to 20th and now 21st-century prints, there are commonalities that run through them. For instance, she looks for a maintenance of interest in the classical tradition -- certain artists, subjects, repetition of certain motifs -- if by different techniques.
Penchansky has also organized a local Japanese print collectors' group. It's social, but these are knowledgeable, serious collectors. "Not just three prints," she says.
One collector, who wishes to remain anonymous, collects a single artist, Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950). A Pittsburgh attorney who also admires the Impressionists, he was attracted to Hiroshi's facility with light and shadow.
About 16 years ago, he noticed a Japanese woodblock print in a local antique shop he frequented, admired it over the span of a year and a half, and finally inquired about the artist. "[The print] was an extraordinary hybrid between Eastern and Western art." That Hiroshi could capture the effects of light and atmospheric conditions as well as he did in a woodblock print "was absolutely astonishing," he says.
He continues to search for prints that focus on atmospheric representations, and the approximately 50 in his collection represent about 20 percent of the artist's output.
Hiroshi was a mountaineer, the collector says, and one of his avocations was to hike in the Japanese alps. He also allowed time for mountaineering when traveling in Europe and the United States. Hiroshi's most desirable prints, the collector says, tend to be his mountain scenes.
"Sea Clouds in Houozan" is not only a serenely lovely, softly glowing expanse of mountain and sky, but also the largest print this collector owns. It's also large by Japanese print standards, he says, adding to the challenge of properly aligning the multiple impressions required in the printmaking process.
A surprising work is "Evening in Pittsburgh" or "The Pittsburgh Print," a view of the city from the North Side in which buildings that stand today are distinguishable, fronted by a tugboat on the Allegheny. "It has a gray, dusky look to it," its owner says, with "lights of the city and lights of the tugboat." A book the collector has places Hiroshi in Pittsburgh in 1904 for an exhibition of his work at the Pennsylvania Women's College (perhaps Chatham College, which in 1904 was known as the Pennsylvania College for Women). The print was created in 1928.
Nicholas Reise is the youngest collector of the group, both in number of years collecting (four) and in age. He specializes in triptych battle scenes from the Meiji era, appreciating the way they "reflect the clash of modern and traditional in Japan at the time. The prints depict modern instruments of war in their 'unrefined' bruteness while still maintaining on the whole the more elegant traditional style of block prints," he writes in an e-mail.
A New York banker, he is Barazzone's son, so he'd grown up with a knowledge of and appreciation for both the prints and collecting. He'd visited Japan with his parents when he was 8, which gave him "an affinity for the country and an interest in its history and artwork," he writes. While studying at the London School of Economics he pursued that interest in the course "Modernity and the State in East Asia: China, Japan and Korea Since 1840," becoming particularly fascinated by interactions between China and Japan including the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95.
"I brought stories from the class home to my mother, who gave me my first war print for my birthday that year," he writes. He now owns seven.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1925.