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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

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INTRODUCTION by Melissa M. Rinne

Early Japanese prints were not initially a strong focus of the Asian Art Museum's collection. Although the City of San Francisco was in possession of a large print collection when the museum opened in 1966, the museum's first administrators dismissed ukiyo-e prints as not being "high art" worthy of the museum's collection. As a result, the city's prints went not to the Asian Art Museum but to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where they are kept as part of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Legion of Honor.

By 1965 a selection of Edwin Grabhorn's best prints had been published in four limited edition books printed by the Grabhorn Press for the Book Club of California.[1] Perhaps as a result of the museum's evident lack of appreciation for Japanese prints, Edwin Grabhorn never displayed his own extensive collection at the Asian, nor did he exhibit it publicly elsewhere in San Francisco.

After Grabhorn's death in 1968, Japanese scholars, aware of the collection, decided to feature many of its prints in 1979 as the tenth volume of Ukiyo-e shūka, a deluxe series cataloguing major print collections around the world. Eventually Yamaguchi Keizaburō, president of the Japan Ukiyo-e Society, persuaded Grabhorn's widow, Irma, to allow a selection of the best prints to be shown in a traveling exhibition in Japan. The exhibition traveled to four venues from the fall of 1995 to early 1996, as described in Professor Kobayashi Tadashi's foreword. A limited-edition catalogue was produced to accompany the show under the direction of Yamaguchi with brief entries on each print written by Koike Mikiko (then curator of the Shunsen Museum of Art in Kushigata in Yamanashi Prefecture); that publication informs the content of the catalogue entries in the present work.

Following Irma Grabhorn's death in 2003, her nephew in Germany, Mr. Andreas Fuld, inherited the print collection. The family decided to donate the best works from the collection to a museum—but which museum would be the beneficiary was an open question. Dr. Emily Sano, at that time director of the Asian Art Museum, got wind of the family's plans. Together with Dr. Yoko Woodson, then the museum's curator of Japanese art, Sano convinced the family to allow the prints to remain in San Francisco. They were acquired by the museum in 2005.

This catalogue, while far from exhaustive, presents the collection to an English-speaking audience for the first time. We are fortunate to include fine essays by Julia Meech and David Waterhouse, and benefited from the assistance of a number of specialists who looked at the collection and provided insights on individual works. We have done our best to provide basic information about each print, including full transcriptions of titles, signatures, and seals along with publication information and explanations gauged for nonspecialists. We hope thereby to make them accessible to general readers while offering connoisseurs an understanding of the collection's scope, scale, and significance.

The Grabhorn Collection at the Asian Art Museum comprises 136 titles; a number of these are diptychs or triptychs, made up of multiple sheets. This selection includes all the prints that were sent to Japan in the 1995 exhibition, with the exception of the works by Hokusai and Hiroshige, which remained with the family.

The collection is significant for several reasons. Because the prints were stored away from light for decades under the Grabhorns' care, many of them are extraordinarily well preserved. Some are the best surviving examples of their kind or the only known impressions of a given design. Standouts are works by Eishōsai Chōki (no. 101), Kitagawa Utamaro (no. 86), Utagawa Toyokuni (no. 114), Katsukawa Shun'ei (no. 60), and Katsukawa Shunkō (no. 61). Also notable are a number of exquisite, Western-influenced landscape prints, including works by Ryūryūkyo Shinsai (no. 122), Yashima Gakutei (nos. 123 and 124), and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (no. 130 and others).

For the Asian Art Museum, this collection not only establishes a superlative foundation for growth in the area of ukiyo-e but also provides an excellent basis for introducing the early history of Japanese prints. The prints range from the earliest decades of Japanese printmaking in the late seventeenth century through the first decades of the nineteenth century. These examples effectively chronicle each phase in the technical development of Japanese printmaking in a representative array of notable artists and styles.

The collection includes many rare monochrome and hand-colored prints as well as several masterpieces from the early phase of color printing. Prints from the 1760s illustrate the emergence of full-color nishiki-e prints under Harunobu and his contemporaries, as detailed in David Waterhouse's essay. Others demonstrate the full flowering of color printing—specifically the use of mica, blind-printing, and the representation of intricately patterned, even translucent textiles—in works by Utamaro, Tōshūsai Sharaku, and others in the 1790s. A later development, the use of Prussian blue printing ink, is documented in the early-nineteenth-century landscape prints. We also find changes in paper size from the oversized ō-ōban used in the prints by the earliest ukiyo-e artists, to the hosoban, hashira-e, and chūban prints favored in the early- to mid-eighteenth century, and finally the standardized ōban size common in prints of the 1740s and later.

Because of their light sensitivity and fleeting colors, the Grabhorn prints will be exhibited only rarely and will continue to spend most of their time kept safely in archival storage to preserve their brilliant colors for future generations. This catalogue attempts to establish a foundation of basic information to facilitate their understanding, research, and appreciation for years to come.

1. Figure Prints of Old Japan (1959); Landscape Prints of Old Japan (1960); Ukiyo-e: The Floating World (1962); and Twelve Wood-Block Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro (1965).

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Seduction: Japan's Floating World | exhibitions