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How an American collector brought Jakuchu to Tohoku

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

In the two years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, many of Japan’s visual artists and curators have cobbled together art-related events and projects with the aim of lending support to the people in the affected areas. Almost as many have struggled trying to put art to some practical use — group “performances” for clearing debris, for example, or “workshops” for entertaining those at evacuation centers.

Now, a new approach is being tried — and its unabashed simplicity appears likely to ensure its success. “Jakuchu’s Here!” is a no-holds-barred blockbuster exhibition bringing together more than 100 quality artworks from the mid- to late-Edo Period — especially those by the popular Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800). The key to the show’s genius is there in its title: “here!” Where? Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, that’s where — not the profitable population centers of Tokyo and Kyoto, to which such big-time shows usually stick like magnets, but the three prefectures hit hardest by the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

“Jakuchu’s Here!” thus represents a gift from Japan’s art establishment to an audience that it has neglected for decades. It includes loans from not only each of Japan’s six national museums but even the Imperial Household Agency, too, and yet, surprisingly, it was the brainchild of a man unaffiliated with any of those venerated institutions; he doesn’t even live in Japan. Meet Joe Price, an 83-year-old Oklahoman with a disarmingly down-to-earth demeanor and a fondness for telling stories.

Price recently sat down with The Japan Times to recall how “Jakuchu’s Here!” came to fruition. A little background was required, so the gregarious Price took up the story precisely six decades ago, and — barely hiding his own surprise at the unlikelihood of it all — he gradually revealed the series of events by which he became a preeminent collector of Edo Period art and, in particular, the paintings of Jakuchu.

It all started in 1953, when Price was working as an engineer on the construction of a new office building for his father’s company, H. C. Price Company, a successful Oklahoman oil pipeline and chemical company. The project architect was none other than the modernist master Frank Lloyd Wright.

“One day I was walking with Wright together in New York when the architect ducked into a store to look at some prints,” Price recalled. “There was a painting on the wall of great grape vines that was fascinating.”

Earlier, Price quickly explained, Wright had asked him whether he spelled god with a capital “G” or not. The architect then announced that he himself spelled nature with a capital “N.” It was not until Price laid eyes on that painting of grape vines that he grasped what Wright had been getting at.

“You look at it and it does not look like a grape vine. Grape vines do not look like that, but it feels like a grape vine. In my studies afterward of that painting I realized that what the artist had done was leave out everything that wasn’t necessary and had left only the essence of a grape vine,” Price said.

At the time Price had no idea who made the painting — “I didn’t even know it was Japanese,” he said — but he was so taken by it that later that same day he ran back to the store and bought it. It was the first of what would be many, many works to enter his possession by a then almost unknown artist named Ito Jakuchu.

Over the next decade, Price made many trips to that same bookstore, snapping up works by the same artist and others from the same period — many of which demonstrated a similar clarity in their depictions of nature and animals.

During an impromptu visit to Japan in 1963, Price took his until-then all but accidental collecting activities to a new level, enlisting the help of an interpreter (Etsuko, who in 1966 he married) to seek out the wealthy sons of prewar collectors, many of whom were prepared to part with works they had never known how to appreciate.

“In 1963 in Japan almost nobody knew the name Jakuchu,” Price exclaimed with undiminished surprise. “They knew (Ogata) Korin and (Tawaraya) Sotatsu, but very little middle and late Edo Period, which is what I liked.”

Price’s collection continued to grow during ensuing decades. One of his most important acquisitions came in 1985, when a curator he had come to know showed him a photo of twin six-panel sets of screens by Jakuchu depicting a menagerie of mysterious wildlife. One of the screens depicts a donkey, camel, tiger and many more animals centered around a white elephant that is, in a compositional quirk, facing directly at the viewer. Another depicts cranes, parrots, cockatoos and many other birds centered around a phoenix.

“I knew that it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen,” Price said of the two screens.

Ironically, Price’s curator friend told him that he had recently tried to have the screens exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum, but that, in a clear indication of the lack of interest in this period at the time, he had been laughed at.

Still, at that same time Jakuchu was about to experience a major revival, and Price — who by then owned many of the artist’s major works — was quite unwittingly destined to share the spotlight. Come the mid 1990s and a young artist by the name of Takashi Murakami latched onto some earlier research by the art historian Nobuo Tsuji and decided that Jakuchu was in fact a prime example of a deliberately two-dimensional approach to painting that he termed “Superflat.” The same simplicity and clarity of line that had impressed Price in the 1950s had now found an important new fan.

Renewed interest in Jakuchu followed on the back of Murakami’s subsequent rise to fame, culminating even in a triumphant return to the Tokyo National Museum — the very same venue that had sneered at exhibiting Jakuchu in the 1980s. A 2006 exhibition focused solely on Price’s extraordinary collection attracted a mind-blowing 317,000 people.

Price actually intended that the 2006 show would be the last during his own lifetime that his collection would come to Japan. But that was before March 11, 2011.

“I remember being at home on that day,” Price recalled. “My wife yelled at me to come down, hurry, run and she was looking at the TV set and it was a Japanese village and I looked at it and then all of a sudden I realized the whole village was moving. It was the tsunami.”

For Price the experience was particularly painful, because it was Jakuchu’s depictions of Nature (with Wright’s capital “N”) that had spurred his interest in art in the beginning. “But here nature had destroyed. It was the wrong side of nature,” he said.

For the next month the couple had only one thought in their minds: What they could do to help. “We got to thinking, why not take the collection back over there to the devastated areas and let the people there see their heritage and the beauty these artists were able to create,” he said.

It took a few months, but some of their contacts in the Japanese art world knew curators at museums in the affected regions and, eventually, they formed agreements with three venues to plan and host the show — the Sendai City Museum (Miyagi Prefecture), Iwate Museum of Art and Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art.

Soon the idea took on a life of its own, with the Miho Museum in Saga Prefecture, then the Imperial Household Agency, then the national museums offering to contribute works. “Everybody wanted in. From then on it was easy to organize,” Price said.

Price’s wife Etsuko has thought a lot about the effect that this exhibition could have. “It will create a good memory for the children. The children must have a tremendous trauma. It must be so painful losing parents, sister, brothers, friends. But, maybe, in 50 years time they will look back and say they remember this exhibition,” she said.

And at the same time, Price added, “they might fall in love with their heritage and realize they have a national pride that they have to carry on in the future.”

It’s odd that such a message — and such an opportunity — had to come courtesy of an American from the other side of the world, but, if it turns out to be true, it will be worth it.

“Jakuchu’s Here!” continues at the Sendai City Museum, Miyagi Prefecture, through May 6 before moving to the Iwate Museum of Art (May 18-July 15) and then the Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art (July 27-Sep. 23). For further information see jakuchu.exhn.jp