Carnegie Museum of Art dusts off Japanese ivories, prints

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944) was a poet, author and art critic who mingled with the likes of Walt Whitman and John Barrymore. Henry J. Heinz (1844-1919) founded one of the largest manufacturers of processed foods in the world today, the H.J. Heinz Company.

The two couldn't be more polar opposites. Yet, together, the bohemian and the businessman, forged by mutual interests in Japanese culture, contributed to the Carnegie Institute in its early days through the collecting of Japanese prints and ivories, respectively.

Now, a special selection of works from both collections have been tastefully arranged in complement to one another in the Carnegie Museum of Art's Gallery One of the Scaife Galleries in the exhibition “Japan Is the Key ... : Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900-1920,” which features 80 works — 69 prints and ivories from the Museum of Art and 11 ivories from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Many of the works in both collections, especially the ivories, have remained in storage for decades. That is until recently when Lulu Lippincott, the museum's curator of fine arts, had the idea to exhibit the early Japanese print collection. Wanting to present the works in a different context than they have been shown in the past, she remembered that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History had a number of Japanese ivory sculptures in storage.

“We thought this would be an excellent opportunity to bring the two mediums, woodblock prints and ivories, together in one exhibition exploring the early history of collecting Japanese art at this museum,” says Akemi May, curatorial assistant in fine arts, who worked with Lippincott on the research and organization of the exhibit.

For May, who spent countless hours removing 100-year-old dust from many of the ivories as well as researching the artists who created them, the process was “very exciting,” especially as she uncovered relationships to the prints.

“The artists who created the ivories really tried to use similar motifs and scenes that they would see in the prints, using genre scenes or endearing vignettes to play at the heartstrings of the Westerners who would purchase them, because they were mostly made for Western export.”

One of those Westerners was Heinz who, after establishing his company, took to international travel, making two extensive trips to Japan — first in 1902, then in 1913 when he traveled throughout Asia and the Pacific as a representative of the Sunday School Movement.

“Heinz collected most of these (ivories) during the earliest part of the 20th century,” May says, “prior to being named Honorary Curator of Textiles, Time Pieces and Ivory Carvings at the Institute in 1914.”

Arranged in display cases in the center of Gallery One, many are propped up on mirrored pedestals so that visitors can see all aspects of the intricate carving of these pieces. Many have details carved on the bottoms, such as a late-19th or early-20th century Bijin figure of a geisha in which can be seen the smallest of details, down to the bottoms of her thatch sandals. This on a base that is only 2 34 inches in diameter.

“They really are 360-degree objects that were meant to be handled, turned over and appreciated from all angles,” May says.

Most curious is a portrait bust of Heinz carved in 1901 by Uda Gawa, May says. “We don't know whether it was a commission or carved in appreciation of him and his collecting prowess.”

Where Heinz “collected in an almost compulsive way,” says Lippincott, Hartmann went about acquiring Japanese wood-block prints in a more scholarly fashion. “He collected works by Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro, all very big names in the history of Japanese prints,” Lippincott says.

Something of a vagabond, Hartmann only spent about a year and a half living in Pittsburgh. Between 1905 and 1906, he served as a consultant for Carnegie Museum's fine arts department director John Beatty.

Among his finds is “South Wind, Clear Dawn (Gaifu kaisei),” a wood-block print by Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760-1849) from about 1830-31.

“This is a very important Hokusai print,” Lippincott says. “A better-known version of this is called ‘Red Fuji' because it shows (Mt. Fuji) in a red-brick color. This is a very rare variant that was printed without the red block. So, it's a radical, strong impression of a very famous print.”

Another exceptional work is “Artisans (Shokunin)” (1857) by Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786-1865). A triptych, it depicts Japanese artisans creating woodblock prints.

“A lot of people ask how these prints are made, so we are very fortunate that we have a print that shows the process,” Lippincott says. “A lot of teamwork went into creating one of these images, from the sharpening of the knives, to the carving of the blocks, preparing the paper, applying the color to the printing block, then printing the print. It was a complicated workshop process. The designer's job was only the first step.”

Lippencott says, as they move forward into researching the prints in the collection, there are plans to catalog as many artisans who worked on them as possible.

“These are both sort of neglected collections, with really wonderful things in them,” Lippincott says. “And they deserve more study, because there are some very important prints and carvings in them.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy