An Art Reborn: James A. Michener and Twentieth-Century Japanese Prints

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    James A. Michener lecturing on contemporary Japanese prints at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, October 8, 1959.

October 02, 2007 - November 25, 2007
James A. and Mari Michener Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

The Honolulu Academy of Arts continues to celebrate the centennial of the world-famous author and patron of the arts James A. Michener. This second rotation of prints from the Academy’s collection will focus on Michener’s passion for modern Japanese “creative prints” (sösaku hanga). During the rotation Kyoto woodblock-print artist and art promoter Takenaka Kenji will offer a special workshop on October 6 and 7 on Japanese woodblock printing at the Art Center (see October lectures).

Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946) founded the Creative Print Movement in the early twentieth century. He was one of the first Japanese artists to consider print-making not just as a technical skill, but as a high art on the same level as painting or sculpture. Yamamoto suggested that prints should be created by a single artist who would do all of the designing, carving, and printing by himself. This was a radical shift from the production of  traditional ukiyo-e prints, which required the assistance of a publisher, designer, carver, and printer. The new print school was later led by a group of experimental young Japanese artists such as Onchi Koshirö (1891-1955) and Hiratsuka Un’ichi (1895-1997). In the 1950s, after World War II, the prints attracted the attention of many American Occupation Army officers.

The late author and scholar Oliver Statler (1915-2002) was one of these officers, and he devoted himself to the study of Japanese culture and modern creative prints throughout the Occupation period. Statler eventually became the first person to introduce Japanese creative prints to the United States in his book Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn (1956), to which Michener wrote an introduction. After that, Statler helped Michener collect modern prints, which were periodically donated to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Michener was fast becoming a patron of emerging Japanese artists.

Even though many people lamented the tremendous changes brought about by the Westernization of Japan after the war, Michener was not one of them. He stated:

Well-intended people often exclaim: Isn’t it a pity that the artists no longer do Japanese scenes like Hokusai and Hiroshige. I am afraid this is what must be termed ‘the tourist approach to art criticism.’ One wants a Dutchman to paint windmills and wooden shoes, an Italian to do Madonna in red shawls etc. This type of criticism demands that if an artist is Japanese he is obligated to paint geisha girls, cherry blossoms, and Mount Fuji. Carried to logical absurdity, what such critics contend is that it is all right for a Spaniard like Picasso or an American like Pollock or Russian like Chagall to paint in an international style, but it is forbidden for a Japanese to do so. I find no logic in this whatever.


In regard to the modern Japanese print, Michener said: “It is their work that speaks to me in contemporary accents.”

Unlike his collection of traditional Japanese woodblock prints of the Edo period (1615-1868), his assemblage of modern Japanese prints was built entirely by his own efforts. Michener proudly said: “It is important to record that my affection for this school of artists is neither capricious nor accidental. I did not stumble upon their prints with an untutored eye.” Although Michener was schooled in the best of European oil painting and Japanese woodblock design, he summed up his reaction to seeing the modern prints for the first time in the following way:  “it was the impact of this bold new world of Japanese prints done in the full European tradition, yet combining many of the Oriental values of the past, that quite stunned me.”