PITTSBURGH, PENN. — An exhibition of two rarely seen Japanese collections from the early years of Carnegie Institute (now Museums of Art and Natural History) will capture the excitement and intrigue surrounding the museums’ first encounters with these exquisite objects. Opening March 30 in Gallery One at Carnegie Museum of Art, “‘Japan Is the Key…’: Pittsburgh Collects Prints and Ivories, 1900–1920” traces the development of these collections through the two larger-than-life men responsible for Carnegie Institute’s ambitious exhibitions of Japanese art in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
By reexamining the museum of art’s masterwork prints, including works by Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro, along with the museum of natural history’s delicate, dynamic ivories, this exhibition allows for exciting new building-wide collaborations in object research and conservation, as well as a new look into institutional history.
Sadakichi Hartmann and H.J. Heinz were vastly different men, united by a common fascination with Japan at the turn-of-the-century. Hartmann was a poet and critic of Japanese-German parentage. Flamboyant, waspishly brilliant and an exponent of Modernism and Japonisme, Hartmann seems to have masterminded the Carnegie Institute department of fine art’s controversial early exhibitions of Japanese prints and avant-garde photography. Heinz, a pillar of industrial America, visited Japan through his business engagements and his commitment to Christian ministry work, loaning his rapidly growing collection of ivory carvings to Carnegie Institute in 1910. Both left a legacy in the collections of the institute, and linked Pittsburgh to an international discourse on Japan’s rapidly growing cultural and economic impact.
The exhibition presents highlights from these significant collections of rare prints (ukiyo-e) and ivories (okimono). Now spread between both museums, these artworks tell the stories of two personalities, each fascinated by the emerging cultural and aesthetic dialogue between Japan and the West. Both understood that Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Japanese arts combined historic Asian traditions and avant-garde Western ideas in ways that could predict or shape the Twentieth Century. Both also grasped that this exchange affected more than aesthetic tastes, it affected world culture.
As forward-thinking as these men were about the ways that Japanese art would shape modern art movements, their assessments of artworks were often just plain wrong. Hartmann approached his collecting activities with enthusiasm and high ideals, but he did not possess the specialist knowledge to acquire truly great examples of the art form. It was not until 1917 that the institute learned this, when Kojiro Tomita, a Japan expert from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts visited the museum, and pointed out that a substantial amount of these purchases were second-rate re-strikes.
Director of fine arts John Beatty destroyed these prints. He had already hired Edward Duff Balken as the museum’s first curator of prints and drawings, and Balken corrected course, purchasing dozens of important masterwork prints in 1916 and 1918.
The exhibition will showcase the museums’ most beautiful objects from this period, and tell the story of Pittsburgh’s early encounters with a newly opened Japan. The exhibition also presents an opportunity to research, conserve and reconnect the print and ivory collections, including a colossal ivory eagle.
Carnegie Museum of Art is at 4400 Forbes Avenue. For information, 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.