The World’s Loveliest Art: James A. Michener and Japanese Woodblock Prints

  • Exhib_slideshow_024493

    Hiratsuka Unichi (1895-1997), Portrait of James A. Michener, Japan, Shöwa period, 1957, Woodblock print, Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (24493A)

July 24, 2007 - September 30, 2007
James A. and Mari Michener Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

In 2007, the Honolulu Academy of Arts celebrates the centennial anniversary of the world-famous author and patron of the arts James A. Michener.  To commemorate this event, the Academy will exhibit two special rotations of Japanese woodblock prints from the Michener Collection in the Michener Gallery:  a rotation of 18th - and 19th - century prints from July 24 to September 30; and a rotation of 20th - century prints from October 2 to November 25.  During the first rotation, on July 29, noted Michener biographer Stephen May will deliver a special lecture on Michener’s life and art interests.

Michener rose from the humblest of beginnings; he was abandoned as an infant in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, now home to an art museum that bears his name and one of the many cities to receive his generous support.  Raised by a poor widow from whom he took his family name, he never knew his own actual birthday.  Michener enlisted in the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor, and was stationed in the South Pacific; his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, was based on his experiences at that time and published shortly after the end of World War Two, in 1947.  Michener’s interest in the islands of the Pacific continued long after the war, culminating in the epic novel Hawaii, published in 1959, and Michener’s subsequent lifelong relationship with the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Hawaiian community.

Long before his careers as Navy officer and fiction writer, as a young student abroad in Italy during the early 1930s Michener came up with the idea for a book on the life (and death) of an art movement.  He originally intended to dedicate this case study to one of his great passions in Western art, Sienese painting.  However, his experiences during and after the war exposed him to the traditional Japanese woodblock print, which he eventually concluded “was a more artistic art than Sienese painting, in that it included at least six artists notably superior to any produced by Siena. . .directly and vitally concerned with the innermost problems of art.”  High praise, indeed, for this humble art form, which at the time was still neglected by all but a few passionate admirers. Michener continued, “Furthermore, the Japanese print is fun.  It comprises one of the most totally delightful art forms ever devised.  Its colors are varied, its subject matter witty, its allurement infinite.”  Michener’s case study on the growth and decline of an art would eventually be published as The Floating World in 1954.

As Michener conducted his research for The Floating World, he was stunned to find that the greatest museum holdings of Japanese woodblock prints in the entire world were not in Japan, but in his own homeland of the United States.  Michener described the print collections at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago as “stupendous,” stating that “America is the curator of one of the world’s loveliest arts.”  Little did he know that by the end of the 1950s his own collection of prints would become one of the finest private collections in the world, and that the nearly 5000 prints he would eventually donate to the Honolulu Academy of Arts would form the core of the third great American collection of Japanese woodblock prints.  It is the Academy’s great honor to be home to the world-renowned Michener Collection and to recognize the contributions of James A. Michener to Hawaii on his centennial anniversary.