Nearly 120 Japanese wood-block prints collected by an intrepid Oberlin alumna from the class of 1889 span the history of the medium. These works—selected from the 200 prints that recently toured three major venues in Japan—feature actors, courtesans, and landscapes favored by denizens of the “Floating World” of 17th- to 19th-century Japan.
The life of Mary Andrews Ainsworth (1867–1950) would be forever changed by a solo voyage to Japan in 1906. A year earlier, Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war was heralded as a symbol of the nation’s rapid industrial development after centuries of isolation. Ainsworth, however, was attracted to an earlier Japan: that of the Edo period (1603–1868). In this more peaceful era, a world of entertainment arose—ephemeral pursuits made even more popular through the wide distribution of the woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.”
The Ainsworth collection represents the history and evolution of Japanese woodblock printmaking, with high-quality examples of the major subjects, styles, and artists of ukiyo-e. Together, the works convey the full richness and complexity of Japan’s print tradition.
Ainsworth bequeathed her collection of more than 1,500 prints to the Allen in 1950. To this day, the works are a mainstay of classes and visitor experiences at the museum. Ukiyo-e Prints from the Mary Ainsworth Collection is the final iteration of a traveling exhibition that was on view in 2019 at three museums in Japan.
Organized by Kevin R.E. Greenwood, Joan L. Danforth Curator of Asian Art, with Masako Tanabe and Marie Matsuoka, Chiba City Museum of Art; Saori Oishi, Shizuoka City Museum of Art; Eri Yoshida, Weikado Bunko Art Museum; Tatsuya Akita and Yasuko Kikuchi, Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts; Hiromi Sone, Mangosteen, Inc.; and Luoying Sheng ’20, AMAM curatorial assistant in Asian art education.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Image: Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849), Fuji in Clear Weather (Red Fuji), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, early 1830s, color woodblock print. Mary A. Ainsworth Bequest, 1950.711