Prints were among the first of the Japanese arts to become widely appreciated outside Japan. Colorful woodblock prints of actors, courtesans, warriors, landscapes, and natural and supernatural subjects that had previously circulated in the urban Japanese marketplaces of the Edo period (1615–1868) were discovered by European and American collectors beginning in the nineteenth century. Masterful Illusions presented, in two parts, 138 prints from the collection of more than three hundred formed over a period of more than thirty years by Anne van Biema. The prints reveal her fascination with legend and imagination as expressed in Japanese prints through the combined skills of artists, block engravers, and printers who worked under the direction of publishers.
Dreams, ghosts, heroes, and villains appear in compelling images drawn from popular tales, legends, history, and theater. Lyrical and poetic themes provide a contrasting tone of elegance and aesthetic subtlety. Kabuki actors, the stars of the urban “floating world” of Edo Japan, are a focus of the collection. The brilliant skills and versatility of master actors presented audiences in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto with exciting and visually dazzling entertainment that drove a constant demand during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for prints of popular actors in current performances.
Lavish costume, stylized makeup, elaborate wigs, and onstage transformations enhanced the illusions created by kabuki actors, who competed for audience acclaim through their creative interpretations of varied roles. Masterful Illusionswas the first exhibition of the Japanese print collection of Anne van Biema, who has promised her collection as a future gift to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and who has generously supported research and publication of the catalogue.