- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

It's not surprising that the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is exhibiting a first-rate collection of Japanese ukiyoe ("floating world") woodblock prints. The flamboyant renderings of Edo-period Kabuki actors, fierce warriors and beautiful courtesans have captivated Europeans and Americans since the mid-1800s. Yet the current exhibition of "Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints From the Anne van Biema Collection" raises a significant question.
"Who is Anne van Biema?"
Even many of the Japanese art aficionados who attended the elegant exhibit opening weren't previously aware of this unusual collector. Mrs. van Biema avoids the limelight and modestly collects about 10 prints a year. Her name and collection were not well-known until now.
Yet Mrs. van Biema, a New Yorker, is just as passionate about prints as art lovers who have amassed larger collections. She co-founded the influential Ukiyoe Society of America Inc. in 1973, but this is the first major exhibit of her collection.
Mrs. van Biema has been collecting since the late 1960s, when prints near her Washington Square home went for $30, $60 and $100, but she has rarely shown her prints before. Although prices began to climb in the following decade because of increased interest by collectors and scholars, she stuck with it.
Now in her 80s, she has promised her collection of more than 320 prints, ranging from the 16th century to the 19th century, to the Sackler at some future date. The museum is showing the exhibit's 138 prints in two rotations. The current one ends Monday; the second group opens Thursday and runs through Jan. 19. Both exhibits comprise 69 works.
The show is a celebration of Mrs. van Biema's gift and the generous accompanying endowment to support research, publications, exhibitions and scholarly programs on Japanese art at the Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art. "It is the largest committed endowment since Mr. Freer's," says exhibit curator Ann Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese art at the Sackler and Freer Galleries. The museum refused to name the amount of Mrs. van Biema's bequest.
Prints that explode with energy are the name of the game for Mrs. van Biema. Images of actors playing such roles from the Kabuki Theater as Hokushu's "The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Kato Masakiyo" (1822) and Utagawa Kuniyoshi's "Takeda Katsuchiyomaru" (1825-1830) are favorites. Actor and warrior prints are forceful visual images. They convey the often fierce emotionalism of Kabuki through their powerful design, bold compositions and soaring lines.
Consider the Hokushu print. The portrait with its crossed eyes, plummeting eyebrows and clenched lips may look weird to some Westerners. Japanese convention has long dictated that portraits such as these be stylized designs. Here, triangular-shaped diagonals form the actor's robe. "The costumes are almost like an architecture," a Japanese art lover once commented.
The images also show the Japanese love of the ferocious and exaggerated. These stylizations go back to early grimacing guardian Japanese figures in front of ninth-century Buddhist temples. Their threatening expressions and poses were meant to keep demons away.
Beginning in the early 17th century, male actors such as Utaemon III performed in Kabuki plays in what was called the ukiyo, or "floating world" of the theater and pleasure quarters of Edo, Osaka and Kyoto. (Ukiyo-e means "pictures of the floating world.") Dressed with flamboyant makeup, wigs and elaborate costumes indicating their roles and theatrical family lineage, many achieved superstar status think Marilyn Monroe and Tom Cruise. It's ironic that although Kabuki originated with music and dance performances by Okuni, a priestess from the Shinto shrine of Izumo, only men could perform.
Consider the print of Utaemon. Hokushu portrayed the Osaka Kabuki star as a warrior who drank poisoned wine to protect the son of his late master. It seems the enemy was quite lethal. Examine, also, Kuniyoshi's image of Takeda, a successful military leader, killing a tanuki an animal thought to have supernatural powers.
These and other performances mesmerized audiences in the pleasure quarters. The term ukiyo originated with Buddhism's belief in the transience of a sorrowful earthly life. The writer Asai Ryoi later changed the meaning to experiencing the evanescent pleasures of life on earth.
Mrs. van Biema also collected prints portraying beautiful women, popular classical themes from literature and poetry and landscapes, but those of actors clearly are the stars here. They're considered works of art now, but woodblock print artists originally made them as performance announcements or as posters and pinups. The middle class was coming into its own, and these prints, usually made in huge runs of single sheets, relate to our film posters, billboards, comic strips and movie magazines.
"I never set out to make a collection of actor prints," the collector says. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful showing of the genre, which brings all the passion, dynamic styles and flamboyance of Japanese ukiyoe prints to the Sackler. Washington will be all the richer for it.

WHAT: "Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints From the Anne van Biema Collection"
WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas Day through Jan. 19
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/357-4880


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