Japanese Woodblock Prints On Display at Scripps

“Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints” opened at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery this past Saturday. The exhibit was organized by Bruce Coats, a Scripps art history professor, in connection with two courses he is teaching on Japanese arts.

The exhibition consists of works from the gallery’s permanent collection, as well as numerous pieces on loan from Paulette and Jack Lantz of Pasadena. The Lantz collection is one of the foremost collections of Genji prints.

Along with the traditional Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki, the exhibition examines a parody of the tale from the mid-1800s by Ryutei Tanehiko, entitled The Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki. The prints exhibited showcase moments from both tales and both periods.

“Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints” is a very academic exhibition. Nearly every print has a paragraph of text on its label explaining the scene depicted. For viewers who are not familiar with the Genji tale, it can be a lot of information to take in. 

The majority of the prints are identically sized triptychs (the traditional form for Genji prints), which can be overwhelming as well, especially without knowledge of Japanese prints. This similarity of size and content within each piece are reminiscent of the “Zen Ox-Herding Pictures” exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art. The pieces in that show, too, can blend together after a while simply due to their seeming lack of variation, though the repetition is also part of their charm.

Upon more careful inspection, the prints in the Genji exhibition prove to be diverse and intriguing. Each print is marked by bright colors and very detailed illustration. It is a spectacular collection of pieces, each in incredible condition. The colors are remarkably intense and compelling, and it is difficult to look away after getting close to the scenes. 

Appreciation for this exhibition would be increased with knowledge of the Japanese language (to understand the calligraphy in each text), Japanese woodblock prints or the Genji tales. However, without such knowledge, it is still a very pleasurable exhibition to attend.

The gallery has put a lot of effort into giving the exhibition a specific feel. Apart from two small pots and a couple of books, there are no three-dimensional objects in the space. The gallery, however, has added two large pots with frond-like plants in order to change up the space. Also, the room is entirely open in the center, giving the space a calm feel.

This exhibition has a lot of charming aspects and presents a great learning opportunity for students interested in Japanese woodblock prints. There is a packet available in the lobby of the gallery that explains the process of the printmaking and the information on the labels, which, while a bit of a deluge, certainly provides context for the prints that could greatly enhance the experience for visitors.

“Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints” is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College. It will be on display through Dec. 16.

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