Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 23, 1999
Julia M. White, Reiko Mochinaga Brandon, and Yoko Woodson Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts Exh. cat. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in association with Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1997. 270 pp.; 209 color ills.; 19 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0295977663)

In the last two decades, most scholarship on ukiyo-e has appeared in exhibition catalogues. Such thematic exhibitions as the Portland Museum of Art‘s 1993 The Floating World Revisitedand the Worcester Art Museum’s 1996 The Women of the Pleasure Quarter have whet our appetite for insightful scholarship. But while our scholarly cravings lust after challenging interpretations and controversial opinions, they must also be tempered with the knowledge that exhibition catalogues cannot be all things to all people. Accordingly, the criteria on which one reviews such publications should include some consideration of the constituency for which they are intended. Written for a general audience, Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts represents an attempt to promote and nurture interest and appreciation of ukiyo-e. As such, it is a welcome addition to the field.

It is customary for exhibitions drawn from the holdings of a single institution to document the history of the collection. To that end, the essay by Julia White, curator of Asian Art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, deals with the collection and James A. Michener’s legacy. “Hokusai and Hiroshige Through the Collector’s Eyes” includes a brief history of the collection before and after it arrived in Honolulu. White also used the opportunity to introduce Michener’s views on Hokusai and Hiroshige. This approach provides more than just interesting insights into the mind of Michener. It also effectively introduces the two artists featured in the exhibition.

I imagine commenting on a benefactor as important as Michener was not an easy task, especially since he was actively engaged in the discipline of ukiyo-e studies. Michener was passionate about Japanese prints, and the enthusiasm he conveyed in his writing on the subject was infectious. He popularized ukiyo-e in ways to which more purely academic scholarship seldom aspires. One senses that this exhibition and catalogue were developed with that goal in mind; the result is a fitting continuation of Michener’s legacy. Michener’s scholarship, however, sometimes reflected his considerable ability as a writer of historical fiction. This, too, is part of his legacy and it should be addressed. The respect White shows for Michener is understandable, but one wishes for a more critical perspective of his views.

Reiko Mochinaga Brandon’s essay, “Modest Wear and Extraordinary Vision: Commoner Clothing in Hokusai and Hiroshige,” provides an informed introduction to various textiles and garments illustrated in the prints. She discusses the types, histories, and methods of production of both textiles and garments and the various ways they were worn. The ethnographic significance of the prints, as Mochinaga Brandon points out, is considerable for the knowledge they provide about the lifestyle of commoners. She regards this feature of the prints as exemplifying both artists’ attention to detail. After reading this essay, I found myself much more attentive to this aspect of the prints. It encourages a kind of looking that perhaps Hokusai and Hiroshige had in mind when they documented the lives of the commoners with their designs.

Yoko Woodson, curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, assumed responsibility for most of the catalogue. Her contributions include an essay titled “Hokusai and Hiroshige: Landscape Prints of the Ukiyo-e School,” introductions to the various genres and subjects Hokusai and Hiroshige explored, and all two hundred catalogue entries.

The catalogue format tends to atomize and decontextualize the objects and images they are meant to serve. Reconstructing the big picture meaningfully in a short essay is no easy task. A certain degree of reductiveness is unavoidable and the projected viewer/reader often dictates the extent to which the scholar must simplify. Woodson’s essay and introductions cover the basics of Tokugawa politics and society in a straightforward, easily understandable manner, but there are some points with which I take issue. The introduction to her essay is particularly problematical. She writes, for example, “We may safely state that Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige were the most important artists in the ukiyo-e school” (31). Woodson’s assessment is based largely on late nineteenth-century Western perceptions, specifically those of a few Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters who admired a number of ukiyo-e artists (not just Hokusai and Hiroshige).

One can only assume that Woodson’s approach here is purely promotional—a necessity, perhaps, when presenting a non-Western art to late twentieth-century American viewers. But to measure the value of ukiyo-e from such a perspective and to overstate it to such a degree, diminishes the unique cultural and aesthetic experience offered by the prints. It also underestimates of the ability of museum patrons to adjust to different visual cultures.

The introduction to Woodson’s essay also includes the following statement: “It was a fortunate historical coincidence that geniuses such as Hokusai and Hiroshige lived and worked in the early nineteenth century. They were remarkable examples of the common saying that artists (or anybody, for that matter) are products of time and place” (31–32). These two claims are contradictory on some levels, but the issue is whether these statements serve any real analytical or expository purpose. Is it necessary to use such tired cliches, even in a catalogue designed for uniformed viewers?

Woodson’s strength clearly lies in her ability with catalogue entries. Her entries are as enjoyable to read as the illustrations are to view. She strikes a good balance among descriptive passages, discussion of connoisseurial issues, and aesthetic appreciation. There is considerable repetition among the catalogue entries (Japanese terms are defined each time they appear, for example), but this may have been an editorial decision designed to accommodate both the rotation of the objects in the galleries and the viewing behavior of museum patrons.

Woodson’s other comments throughout the catalogue are generally well informed, apart from one obvious error. In her introduction to Hokusai’s kachoga she states: “Flowers and birds is a classic theme in Japanese painting. However, it appeared late in ukiyo-e , only when Hiroshige and Hokusai carried this theme to the woodblock print in the 1830s” (142). She restates this claim again in her introduction to Hiroshige’s kachoga. (252) Woodson seems unaware that the development of printed kachoga predate Hokusai and Hiroshige’s efforts by at least a century. Artists of the Kano, Nagasaki, and Rimpa schools experimented with the genre in print media throughout the eighteenth century. Their work was usually issued in album format, but the role of this material as precedents to the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige cannot be dismissed entirely. So, too, should one consider a number of Utamaro’s kyokabon, which depicted flower and bird subjects. More to the point. In the 1770s Isoda Koryusai—an artist solidly in the ukiyo e tradition—issued at least 150 kachoga in various ichimai-e formats. Woodson’s claim that the emergence of kachoga in the nineteenth century “coincided with the eventual cultural enrichment of society and the spiritual maturity of the commoners” (252) needs to be rethought with this correction in mind.

Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts affords access to many prints from the Michener collection that have not yet appeared in a single exhibition. The catalogue is well designed (see the maps on pages 53 and 159, for example) and the illustrations are excellent. Although it offers little in terms of revisionist scholarship, the text is informative and generally accurate. According to the prefatory material, this exhibition and catalogue were intended to celebrate the forging of a new partnership between the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The possibility of more such exhibitions and publications is most welcome for the opportunities they present to raise the profile of ukiyo-e among American viewers.

Allen Hockley
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Dartmouth College