2008 / LACMA / The Price Collection: Art for the urban middle classes in Edo period (McArthur)

Cultural News 2008 June Issue

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Age of Imagination: Japanese Art, 1615 – 1868, from the Price Collection

Jun. 22 – Sept. 4, 2008

By Meher McArthur

LAXMA 2008 Price Collection / The Age of Imagination

Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800), Tiger (detail), Edo period, dated Horeki 5 (1755), hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, H 129.7 x W 71.0 cm, Etsuko and Joe Price Collection, © Shin’enkan 2007

As they prepare for the upcoming exhibition of their Japanese painting collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Joe and Etsuko Price have plenty to be pleased about. The exhibition of their Edo-period paintings recently toured Japan to record-breaking attendance figures.

Many visitors were young – a rarity in the world’s museums – and they spread the word to their friends via blogs, driving up visitor numbers. At the Tokyo National Museum in the summer of 2006, it received 319,000 visitors in a six-week period, more than any other museum exhibition worldwide that year.

High visitor numbers were also recorded at three other museums in Japan, and the exhibition recently enjoyed success at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

On June 22 of this year, the exhibition will come to Los Angeles, and with this final exhibition, total visitor numbers for the touring show are expected to hit the one million mark.

The exhibition, The Age of Imagination: Japanese Art, 1615-1868, from the Price Collection features more than 100 scroll paintings and screens painted by some of the most renowned artists of the Edo period. Artists include Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), perhaps best known for his skillful and often imaginative depictions of animals and birds, most notably his playfully menacing tigers.

Other artists such as Rinpa-style artist Sakai Hoitsu (761-1828), captured the essence of nature in lyrical paintings of birds and flowers of the twelve months of the year, such as the richly colored scroll depicting irises representing the month of May. Fellow Rinpa artist Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) also focused his attention on details of nature, creating such remarkable works as an exquisitely painted scroll entitled “Clams,” which depicts assorted clamshells on a beach, accompanied by plums to suggest a seasonal setting of winter.

Jakuchu, Hoitsu, Kiitsu and others featured in the exhibition were blessed with both great technical skill and vivid imaginations, as the exhibition title suggests, and it is this combination that has given their works such an enduring and universal appeal.

In addition, most of these artists created works for wealthy townspeople – and not the Imperial Court or samurai rulers – from the major cities of Tokyo (formerly Edo), Kyoto, and Osaka. Their patrons then were not the ruling elite, but the urban middle classes, which may also contribute to their broad appeal both in Japan and in the US, and to older and younger audiences alike.

In Japan, two thirds of the visitors to the exhibition were young people.

“The young people who came to see the exhibition really taught me that good art has no age,” says Joe Price, who has been collecting Japanese paintings for over 50 years and is delighted to be sharing his collection with a younger audience. He lights up as his wife Etsuko describes the daily blog that her husband wrote while the collection was touring Japan to talk on-line about their paintings, making them accessible to a wide, internet-savvy audience throughout Japan.

The Prices feel strongly that art should be for everyone’s enjoyment, and Mrs. Price attributes some of the exhibition’s success to the fact that in Japan, “the exhibition was put together by collectors for the ordinary people, not by a scholar for other scholars,” so it has none of the intimidating academic aura that some people associate with museum exhibitions.

The Prices also believe that the way art is displayed can completely transform the viewer’s experience.  “I fell in love with paintings in the natural light of my home,” reveals Mr. Price. “The light at different times of the day changed the paintings, and is just beautiful.”

The Prices have worked hard to reproduce this effect in the museum settings for their collection. “We showed the paintings at Tokyo National Museum without glass cases and with lighting that changed throughout the day,” says Mrs. Price. “This is the way the paintings were shown traditionally. Some young people sat in front of the paintings and cried.

They had never seen Japanese art like this before – they thanked us for showing it to them.” She is clearly proud that she and her American husband have been able to make this experience possible for a new generation of Japanese museum goers.

Visitors to the LACMA exhibition will be able to view many of the paintings in a similar setting. Some will be on view in the Japanese Pavilion, which was funded by the Prices, designed by the late architect Bruce Goff, and is the only independent museum building in the country dedicated to the display of Japanese art.

Here, paintings are displayed with without glass, and natural light is allowed into the gallery through windows resembling traditional Japanese shoji screens. The Pavilion was opened in 1988, and twenty years on, it will house what may be the first and last chance for visitors to view the entire Price collection of Japanese paintings here in Los Angeles.

Some highlights of the collection can be seen at www.shinenkan.com, and information about the upcoming exhibition can be found at  www.lacma.org/art/ExhibPrice.aspx. For lovers of Japanese art, the exhibition will certainly merit more than one visit!

Meher McArthur is an independent Asian Art Curator, Author and Educator in Los Angeles.