Traditional Japanese prints an intriguing aspect of the Lawrence private art collection

Rachel Hoerman

Lawrence University’s private art cache, housed deep in the bowels of the Wriston Gallery, boasts a distinctive collection of Japanese prints from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The prints, many of which were originally part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s private collection and passed through the hands of George Banta before coming to Lawrence, represent an art form whose history spans hundreds of years, and whose influence in the world of art has been profound. The history of woodblock printing in Japan stems back to the seventeenth century, whose beginning hailed the conclusion of over a century of feudal warfare. This time period gave rise to a wealthy but socially stagnant Japanese middle class, who developed extravagant styles of dress, a distinctive set of social values, and characteristically frequented theatres and brothels. Woodblock prints (or Ukiyo-e, meaning “Pictures of the Floating World”) came to symbolize the decadence and values of the Japanese middle class.

Prints were made through a process which allowed for production on a mass scale. Comments Wriston Gallery Curator Frank Lewis: “Japanese woodblock prints were produced like posters. They were available at stores and along pilgrimages as a type of postcard. Prints were like souvenirs that people would purchase to remind them of whatever they had seen or experienced.”

Creating a Japanese woodblock printing required three people. First, a master artist would draw his design on a sheet of paper, then securing it to a prepared block of cherry wood. The woodblock carver would use his miniature chisel tools to carve around the image. The design was then spread with ink and a dampened sheet of paper was pressed over it and rubbed to transfer the relief. The master artist reviewed the first copy (or, “key print”) and selected the colors for the print. For every color to be used, a separate block was carved, until finally the blocks were received by the printer, who transferred the reliefs to mulberry paper.

Woodblock printing was also divided into three schools, each classified through stylistic differences, chiefly the way in which space in the compositions was handled. “The Japanese greatly prized a balance between open and filled space in their prints,” comments Lewis, “and it wasn’t until Japan was opened to the West that their style began to change, catering to the European preference in a combination of complex patterns and many shapes.”

Many Japanese prints featured beautiful women. States Lewis: “There was a long tradition of beautiful women prints—not as lewd as the Pamela Anderson posters found in some freshman guy’s dorm room, but of beautiful people.” Lewis went on to say that images of the politically powerful, as well as courtesans, fair ladies, princesses, cultural icons—similar to the images of Marilyn Monroe produced today—and portrayals of women of ideal and fictitious beauty—like the Gibson Girls of the 1920’s—found a popular niche within Japanese culture.

Prints were also commissioned by the theatre community, and sometimes by Japanese actors themselves. A print by the Japanese artist Kunisada, or Toyokuni III, entitled “The Actor Segawa Kukunojo V as Shizuka-gozen (1829),” is an image commemorating a famous actor in one of the most coveted roles in Japanese Noh Theatre. Done in the traditional style of the Utagawa School, Kunisada’s work was probably reproduced hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times.

Actors, who occupied a rather precarious place in society as both outcasts and celebrities, often passed out their portraits as advertisements of their prestige and fame. “Actors were considered to be people of loose morals in Japanese culture,” said Lewis, adding: “By 1650, women in Japan were outlawed from theatre performance, and their roles were taken over by men, some of whom had been raised as females in certain acting families.”

The influence of Japanese prints on Western art began when open trade was established between the two hemispheres in 1854. Japanese ceramics, which gained immense popularity in Europe, were usually wrapped in prints, a common practice in Japan. Adds Lewis: “Many Europeans were delighted with the images, but the impressionists, who were constantly in search of new perspectives and experiences, were the first artists to respond to the prints.” The images that reached Europe through the Japanese prints had an enormous influence on the styles and motivations behind the impressionist works of artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Monet.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright was also tremendously influenced by Japanese culture, as evidenced in much of his work, which contains the simplicity and essence long prevalent in the buildings of Japan. In fact, some of the Japanese prints contained in Lawrence University’s private collection bear his penciled comments along their borders.

Wright, who collected Japanese prints throughout his lifetime, fell into the debt of George Banta’s printing company, and offered the prints as payment. Banta, whose interest in football was greater than his interest in art, passed the prints on to the university in 1938, where they currently reside as an intriguing part of Lawrence’s private collection.