The collector who saw the fine print

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

The Nezu Museum is currently showing “Ceramics and Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Hagi Uragami Museum,” an exhibition of outstanding artworks collected over the years by the entrepreneur Toshiro Uragami, who donated them to the Hagi Uragami Museum in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1996.

How did Uragami, who is still an avid collector at the age of 87, hone his skills of connoisseurship and shape such a collection? The simple answer is that he has always demonstrated a deep passion for art, and in doing so he developed a profound knowledge of ukiyo-e (woodblock print) masters and the print market, choosing to focus on acquiring early editions that preserved original designs and their brilliant colors.

An enterprising individual who got his start in trading before he went on to develop a successful business in the mining industry, Uragami’s zeal for collecting has been a life-long obsession. In a recent interview, he exclaimed: “I wouldn’t trade my love of art collecting for anything in the entire world!”

Uragami first began collecting in 1963, when on a business trip to Shimane Prefecture he found himself entranced by a print of kabuki actors by Utagawa Toyokuni III (1786-1864). Priced at only ¥1,000, the work made Uragami realize that the domestic market was undervaluing such art. He recognized the collectibility of prints, and by the 1970s his fervor for such art led to searches that took him to far-flung destinations, including London, Zurich and Amsterdam.

Historically, the appreciation of ukiyo-e can be traced back to late 19th-century North American and European collectors and museums. Early connoisseurs included art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) and architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

By the mid-20th century, prints were being auctioned off by major Western auction houses. In Japan, however, they were still considered to be minor collectibles and were typically only found in bookstores, antique shops and galleries. To help increase awareness and appreciation for this genre of art, Uragami established in 1981 what is often said to be his crowning achievement: the Ukiyo-e Dealers Association of Japan. His efforts led to a recognition among Japanese art dealers of the value of ukiyo-e, resulting in Japan’s primary role in today’s international ukiyo-e market.

The most esteemed works in Uragami’s collection include 62 18th-century prints by renowned masters of Japan’s “golden age” of ukiyo-e. These works, showcased at the exhibition, include prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and Toshusai Sharaku, and range from landscapes, portraits of beautiful women, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, to depictions of ghosts.

One such work is the prized 1831-34 edition of Katsushika Hokusai’s “Mount Fuji at Dawn,” from the “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” series. Nicknamed “Red Fuji,” it depicts the rarely seen sight of Mount Fuji bathed in a bright orange-reddish hue cast by the sun’s rays on an early autumn morning. Another work, equally unique, is “The Seven Foibles of Young Women: The Telescope,” dated 1801-1804. This print takes as its theme the notion, which was popular at the time, that everyone has personal faults. Showing a young girl peering into a telescope with an eye half-closed and an open mouth, an older woman stands behind her, holding an umbrella as she gazes at her. The young woman appears to be unabashed in her curiosity as she spies on whatever she is viewing, while the older woman appears both amused and puzzled at this eager example of voyeurism, which must strike her as unladylike yet appealing.

The great breadth of this exhibition’s collection is part of its appeal, along with the fact that Uragami himself carefully selected the works to be included. In addition to the prints, a large space on the first floor of the Nezu Museum displays Uragami’s ceramic collection, which includes remarkable examples of Chinese porcelain dating back as early as the Neolithic period (3,000-2,000 BC) and works of polychrome enamel ware from the Ming dynasty (1364-1644). Korean ceramics are also well represented, including exquisite examples of celadon ware from the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), as well as pieces of blue-and-white ware from the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910).

“Having this passion for collecting art has given great vitality to my life,” said Uragami, explaining why he is happy to share the culmination of his life of collecting. “It has kept me young all these years.”

Viewing this accumulation of works, lovingly gathered over a five-decade span, visitors will see that Uragami’s efforts have resulted in a wonderful showcase that truly celebrates the joys of art collecting — something that Uragami hopes will be the inspiration for a new generation of collectors.

“Ceramics and Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Hagi Uragami Museum” at the Nezu Museum runs till July 15; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en/index.html