Because no Atlanta museum possesses more than modest quantities of South or East Asian art, exhibitions such as Oglethorpe University Museum of Art’s “Jiki to Hanga: Japanese Porcelain and Prints” are fated to be more like fragmentary glimpses than comprehensive surveys. But this lovely show, on display through August 25, is a thoroughly thought-provoking glimpse. Rather than answering a question, each of the exquisite objects on view begins a conversation.
Intent on maintaining its distinctive qualities, Japanese civilization nevertheless developed in dialogue with other cultures, beginning with China and eventually including Europe and the United States. The flows of cultural exchange reached something of a flood tide in the decades following the mid-19th-century Meiji Restoration, when Japanese prints influenced European painters, European art influenced Japanese styles, and American art scholar Ernest Fenollosa encouraged the rise of a freshly traditional Japanese art movement and introduced classical Chinese poetry to European modernism by way of a Japanese commentator.
Japanese porcelain reflects the long conversation with China in its design touches and overglaze techniques, but Japan’s first porcelain was developed independently in 1616 by Ri Sampei, a Korean potter brought to Japan who located the kaolin clay suitable for its creation.
Visitors will enjoy the sheer variety of visual pleasure of the show’s 20 or so plates, bowls and other vessels, which are a gift of Carrie Lee Jacobs Henderson, the granddaughter of onetime Oglethorpe University President Thornwell Jacobs. Though most of the pieces are from the 18th and 19th centuries, the small plate that is the masterwork of the show was probably made around 1690 as part of a set of five, designed for a Japanese aristocrat rather than for the export trade that the Dutch had already established.
The Oglethorpe permanent collection’s single 14th-century Buddha sculpture, its 21st-century Zen calligraphy and its half-dozen woodblock prints are obviously no more than hints of vast genres, though extremely well-chosen hints, since all the prints are from the iconic Edo period of the early 19th century and two are by the quintessentially iconic Hiroshige. Like several other aspects of “Jiki to Hanga,” they make excellent starting points for thinking about traditions that continue today — as the Zen calligraphy indicates, as also do the brush paintings by children of Seigakuin Atlanta International School that form a bridge in the hallway between the exhibition’s two galleries.
The Julianne and Terry Taylor Collection, on loan, in the second gallery allows for an in-depth look at a unique moment in Japanese art history. Hiroshi Yoshida, represented here by 29 prints dating from 1926 to 1946, was a significant figure in the shin hanga (new prints) movement that sought to bring the woodblock tradition into the 20th century.
Trained in European painting techniques, Yoshida saw that there was no point in imitating Hiroshige when the Edo period had passed into history. Although the prints in the Taylor Collection represent evocative Japanese scenes from Mount Fuji to antique bridges and temples, they also deal with such subjects as “Kagurazaka Street After a Night Rain,” a 1929 glimpse of Tokyo that allowed Yoshida to show off the handling of effects of light that he accomplished with multiple layers of color. (Five successive states of the 1939 “Study for a Junk,” presented here in a single frame, show how the different colors were overlaid — a valuable educational moment in the exhibition.)
Yoshida’s travels led to prints depicting the Grand Canyon and Taj Mahal, as well as such distinctly Japanese sites as Toshogu Shrine and boats on the Inland Sea, but this aspect of his career isn’t reflected in the Taylor Collection. It is, nevertheless, important to recall that, unlike the woodblock artists of the Edo period, Yoshida and other artists of his generation regarded themselves as part of a global dialogue to which they wished to make a distinctly Japanese contribution. These prints contain echoes of centuries of Japanese culture, but they also reflect the sensibility of the 20th century.
If this show whets the appetite for Japanese prints, a visit to Agnes Scott College would be in order. The Margaret R. Law Collection, which encompasses the broad sweep of hanga prints from Hokusai and Hiroshige to the late 20th century, is on permanent display on the third floor of Agnes Scott’s McCain Library. Given the relative scarcity of Asian art holdings in the city, this might suggest room for future collaborations.