Curatorial Perspective: Japonisme in Charleston
This winter the walls of the Rotunda Galleries will be decked with a vibrant array of Japanese woodblock prints from the Gibbes permanent collection. These examples of eastern art from Japan’s ukiyo-e school will be accompanied by works produced by Charleston artists who were profoundly influenced by the influx of Japanese art during the early 1900s. Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” is a term reflecting the long-held Buddhist belief in the ephemeral nature of the world of pleasure. Images by ukiyo-e artists were intended to appeal to broad audiences. Popular subjects were those of Kabuki theater actors, courtesans in the entertainment quarters, famous scenic spots, and views of the natural world.
“Japonisme” or, a taste for things Japanese, peaked in our port city during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Early introductions to Japanese art and culture in Charleston can be traced to the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition of 1901-02, and to the 1905 inaugural exhibition at the Gibbes which included a room dedicated to the display of Japanese prints. Additional exhibitions of Japanese art took place at the College of Charleston and the Charleston Museum between 1905 and 1907.
The Japanese print collection at the Gibbes is comprised of over seven hundred prints, dating from early works of the mid-seventeenth century to the decadent styles of the mid-nineteenth century. The core of the collection was assembled in Charleston by Motte Alston Read between 1909 and 1920. Read began collecting Japanese prints after his retirement from Harvard University, where he was a professor of Physiography. He acquired a cross section of types, styles, and methods from a wide range of artists, including works by ukiyo-e masters such as Utamaro, Sharaku, and many by Hokusai, and Hiroshige.
Read encouraged local artists to use his collection for study and many artists of the Charleston Renaissance period (1915 to 1945) found inspiration in the clean designs and vertical compositions characteristic of Japanese prints. Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, and Antoinette Guerard Rhett all studied traditional Japanese printmaking processes and learned to assimilate elements of the Japanese aesthetic in their own work.
—Sara Arnold, curator of collections, Gibbes Museum of Art