East meets west in Statler’s print collection

Post-war Japan was the site of a meeting between modern Western aesthetics and the ancient art of Japanese print making.

By Charles Yarborough

At certain times and in certain places, the traditions of two cultures can come together to form a cultural hybrid, interacting and spinning off new creations. Post-war Japan was the location of such a fusion—a meeting of modern Western aesthetics and the ancient Japanese art of print-making. The Art Institute’s Modern Japanese Prints from Oliver Statler offers a beautiful record of this cultural cross-pollination, drawing from the collection of one of its most important eyewitnesses, Oliver Statler.

A U.S. Army employee stationed in Japan in the 1950s, Statler was an avid collector of sosaku hanga (creative prints) dating from the 1920s up to his own time, and he patronized the art form’s leading practitioners. His collection formed the core of the first U.S. exhibits of modern Japanese prints in the 1960s, and through his relationship with Onchi Kõshirõ, the grandfather of abstract Japanese prints, he interviewed the greatest names of the first and second generation of Japanese artists.

The Art Institute was the first place Statler went when he wanted to display his extensive collection in the U.S., and the museum has gotten its hands on the best of his works for this show. Onchi Kõshirõ takes a prominent place, naturally: His pieces are strikingly abstract, reminiscent of the works of Miró aesthetically, but with a more contemplative vibe.

“Impromptu Number Four” consists solely of a rather fetal looking curved line and a dot—a hyper-minimalist version of traditional Asian scroll art. Another piece, “Season of Butterfly,” shows a starkly colored “half-wing” accentuated by a few basic geometric forms. Kõshirõ believed strongly in minimalism as the only form of modern art but filtered this style through the prism of Japanese culture and the dim lenses of his own emotional depression.

Abstraction is a common motif in the this show, as many rising artists in the 1950s were inspired by Onchi Kõshirõ. Many of these newer works bear less of a resemblance to Cubist paintings and seem to hew closer to traditional Japanese art. Hamada Shõji’s mingei (folk art) movement, which has a little niche in the gallery, was the first manifestation of that desire to combine old motifs with Western influences. It’s very interesting to see how newer artists in Statler’s collections took the mingei movement and Kõshirõ’s abstraction and ran with them.

The most distinctive pieces in the gallery are the deeply emotional portraits by Seisho Toshiro. The image of the elderly poet Hagimata Sakato in front of a traditional print staring somberly at the viewer has a quiet sadness about it, while “My Son” shows the artists’s cheery five-year-old child bathed in a little half-circle of light. While these are highly personal works, they demonstrate a wonderful blending of realistic and traditional touches. Hagimata Sakato seems to be encased in the weight of history, symbolized by his drab kimono and traditional paintings, while the artist’s son is barely sketched out in thin black lines, giving a sense of freedom to the work.

While Oliver Statler is somewhat small, it makes up for what it lacks in quantity with work of striking, sparse beauty. Seeing the distinctive style of minimalist art presented here is quite worth the ride on the Red Line.