The remarkable collection of Japanese woodblock prints, drawings, and assorted supporting materials, now on view in the Leonard L. Milberg Gallery for the Graphic Arts at Princeton University’s Firestone Library has many stories to tell.

“Beauty and Bravado in Japanese Woodblock Prints: Highlights from the Gillett G. Griffin Collection” functions nicely as an historic narrative, a document charting the technical progression of an artistic process and a record of the evolution of a particularly lavish art form. In the process, the exhibition of some 60 works, given to the university by Griffin, graphic arts curator emeritus (1952-1966) in honor of Dale Roylance, graphic arts curator emeritus (1979-1995), also serves as a virtuoso demonstration of the art of building a meaningful collection. Opening with a self-portrait of the collector as a young man — made especially relevant by the inclusion of a Japanese print in the background — the exhibition is also the story of a Yale undergraduate who attended a lecture in 1948 on Japanese prints and fell in love. Almost all of the assembled images — save two purchased recently in Griffin’s honor — were acquired during his undergraduate years.

According to Griffin, he was in the right place at the right time to build such a collection. “It was just after World War II and no one was interested Japanese things. Even worse, my class was full of ex-GIs, including many who fought in the Pacific theater. So when a young Japanese print dealer was the speaker, the reception he got was not overly joyous.”

That left a clear field for Griffin allowing him to acquire his first print for $2.50. And, as the exhibition indicates, the rest is history. Over the next few years he became knowledgeable and was able to amass a collection of significant work, at stunningly modest prices, that essentially document the history of the Japanese woodblock print.

A lecture on Japanese prints, titled “Making Pictures for the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Artists and Publishers,” will be given by Julie Davis, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, on Sunday, May 3, at 3 p.m. in 101 McCormick Hall, followed by a reception in the Milberg Gallery.

Curator Julie Mellby says that the exhibition was staged, in part, to introduce Princeton students to the rich possibilities of collecting and to encourage them to think about starting a collection of their own. “While it’s not possible, today, to assemble holdings of this dimension, we would like students to be aware that they can go to galleries and auctions and discover interesting art that is accessible.”

There is still a lot out there if you know how and where to look, according to Griffin. “Unless you are a millionaire you can’t go after the works I bought,” he says. “But you can find extraordinary things in remote places if you know what to look for. First, one has to find something one is passionately excited by — almost anything — and then look into it, sift through the subject, and find things that other people aren’t looking for.”

The assembled works give graphic voice to almost two centuries of life in Japan with portraits of actors and dancers, domestic scenes, and landscape. In the process, this instructive collection also documents the evolution of the Japanese woodblock print beginning with early black and white images from the late 17th century, and tracing the progression of the genre to the intricately conceived, multi-colored, imagery made during the genre’s golden age — the last quarter of the 18th century.

Known as ukiyo-e or the floating world, the Japanese woodblock print originated in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) at a time when the country was virtually isolated. Closely connected with the pleasures of theaters, restaurants, teahouses, geisha, and courtesans, many of these prints began life as posters advertising theater performances and brothels, or portraits of popular actors and teahouse girls. Landscape, too, brought special pleasures to an audience whose travel options at the time were severely limited.

Like many of the finest arts, however, the genre had its roots in religion. As early as the eighth century, the woodcut was used by Buddhist scholars as a teaching tool. By the 17th century the print had become a means of expressing transient pleasures and freedom from the cares and concerns of the everyday.

Originally used as book illustration, the print assumed a new life as a popular art form in 1660, when an illustrator persuaded his publisher to issue illustrations as single sheets. By the last decade of the 18th century woodblock artists were exploring more complex and refined imagery and offering a broader range of subject.

Installed chronologically, “Beauty and Bravado” charts the progression of the print moving through subject and style. It begins with Griffin’s first acquisition. A single-page book plate by work by Hishikawa Moironobu, an artist often referred to as “the father of the Japanese print.” While Griffin says he bought it “because he liked it,” the monochromatic image, heavily laced with text, turned out to be a landmark work and serves nicely as a graphic foundation for the collection. Beginning with this print, the viewer can trace changing fashions and technical developments in the exhibition’s progression.

Works move from the tentative but significant introduction of color into an era when complex figural compositions were rich with pattern, and a lavish array of color — a time when many of these works required as many as 30 precisely registered color impressions to create the final image. Portraits of Kabuki actors, interior and exterior scenes populated with courtesans, farmers, and an occasional glimpse of more the pedestrian everyday take the viewer back in time to another world.

The inclusion of original preparatory drawings help tell the story of the print. Rarely seen, these lyrical drawings were rendered as patterns for the block — guides for skilled artisans who translated the work into a relief image on a block of wood. As hand-rendered drawings they offer even greater eloquence of line and sensitivity to subject then the more formal construction of the print. We are even shown evidence of the hand and mind of the artist in a drawing that has been corrected with the introduction of a new and presumably improved rendition of a head affixed over an earlier image.

The display of tools, woodblocks, and progressive color proofs, installed in the entry vestibule, completes the story. These objects serve as a reminder that the production of the wood block was a group effort; that these remarkable images exist because of a collaboration among artists, block cutters, printers, and publishers. It is important to note the amazing fluidity of a line cut into a piece of wood using a knife and to consider the technical complexity and richness of images made using these simple tools: “hake” or horse’s hair brushes for inking, a stone bowl for grinding pigments, and the disk-like bamboo-covered baren which was used to transfer the ink from block to paper.

The inclusion of the progressive proofs — sequences of images that chart the changes introduced with the addition of each color block – is especially instructive in understanding the complexity of the production of this amazing art form. This material introduction to a laborious hand process is especially meaningful at a time when an image can be created by almost anyone, at home, with the push of a button.

Art Exhibit, Princeton University, Milberg Gallery, Princeton University’s Firestone Library. 609-258-3000. Sunday, May 3, 3 p.m., McCormick 101, followed by a reception in the gallery. A lecture on Japanese prints will be given by Julie Davis, professor of art history, University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with “Beauty and Bravado in Japanese Woodblock Prints: Highlights from the Gillett G. Griffin Collection.” On view through June 7. 609-258-3000.

The Milberg Gallery is open to the public weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday evenings, 5 to 8 p.m.; and weekends, noon to 5 p.m.

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