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Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg celebrates 50th anniversary with exhibition of woodblock prints
Kiyoshi Saito (Japanese, 1907-1997), Red Poppies (1948). Color woodblock print and gouache. Gift of Marcia and Irwin Hersey.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- Japanese prints were last shown as a group at the MFA during the 40th anniversary year in 2005, and the majority of the more than 40 works in this new exhibition are on view for the first time. One of the world’s great artistic traditions, Japanese prints are known for their technical accomplishment, superlative design, and sheer beauty.

Images of the Floating World and Beyond: Japanese Woodblock Prints extends from the late eighteenth century to an example from the twenty-first. The exhibition opens Saturday, May 9, and continues through Sunday, August 16. Director Emeritus Dr. John E. Schloder has curated the show with Stephanie Chill, M.A. He will introduce the works in a lecture on opening day at 3 p.m.

Ukiyo-e, or “images of the Floating World,” depict hedonistic pleasures in ancient Japan—the world of geishas, kabuki actors, and sumo wrestlers. Woodblock prints of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries by such celebrated artists as Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Yoshitoshi set the stage.

With Japan’s opening to the West in 1854, Western style began to influence the country’s art and culture, reflected in prints of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). The arts blossomed during this time, and Japanese prints adopted Western perspective and themes. Japanese also began to be pictured in Western dress.

In turn, Japanese prints reached Europe and influenced many artists, including French Impressionists like Claude Monet who developed a large collection. The Impressionists admired not only formal elements in these works, but also the Japanese treatment of landscape.

During the Meiji Period, artists paid tribute to Japanese landmarks like Mount Fuji and the heroism of warriors. These scenes could be quite violent. The supernatural also played a large role in the country and its art. Ghosts and demons are part of a unified cosmology, and nature has a prominent spiritual dimension. At the end of the Meiji period, Japan emerged as a world power.

The country experienced a print revival at the beginning of the twentieth century with shin-hanga (new prints). This continued traditional ukiyo-e themes and the workshop system, in which artists collaborated with carvers, printers, and publishers.

At the same time, a different art movement, sōsaku-hanga (creative prints), emerged. Inspired by modern, international currents, these artists remained the sole creators of their prints. Their works range from modern interpretations of traditional approaches and subjects to the completely abstract.

Of special note is a portfolio, The Modern Japanese Print (1962), compiled by the legendary American writer James Michener, who lived in Asia for many years. It contains 10 prints along with text by Mr. Michener, who championed contemporary Japanese works, as well as twentieth-century American art. The author is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific, which inspired the popular Broadway musical and subsequent film, South Pacific.

Japanese prints continue to exert a profound influence on artists around the world. Images of the Floating World and Beyond features a compelling color image (1990) by Japanese-American photographer Patrick Nagatani and Yoshitoshi’s Ghosts (2004), a color woodblock print by Scottish artist Paul Binnie, who studied in Japan. In the latter, a young man sports a large tattoo inspired by Yoshitoshi’s Mount Yoshino Midnight Moon (1886), also part of the exhibition. In fact, some of the early prints in the show look surprisingly contemporary.

This exhibition takes visitors on an artistic and cultural journey through the centuries, spotlights individual works of extraordinary merit, and reveals one of the strengths of the MFA collection. Images of the Floating World and Beyond: Japanese Woodblock Prints once again brings the world to our community.

Japanese prints have a long history at the Museum of Fine Arts. They were among the first gifts to the MFA and are some of the most recent donations for the 50th anniversary. Horace Jayne, the initial Advisory Curator, gave 14 prints in 1963, two years before the Museum opened to the public. Col. David Hester donated 54 Japanese prints in 1967, and Irwin and Marcia Hersey gave 43 more modern works over the years, including the Michener portfolio. Other discerning donors have also made major contributions to these holdings. Images of the Floating World and Beyond is an ideal choice for the MFA’s golden anniversary.

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