The University of Michigan Museum of Art is now staging its fall-winter special exhibitions, running into early 2017. “Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater from the Collection of the UMMA” showcases the museum’s formidable collection of woodblock prints depicting the kabuki performances and actors from eighteenth and nineteenth century Japan.
For some, the term “Kabuki Theater” evokes its popular use in our modern culture, referring to political posturing. But in 1700s and 1800s Japan, it was socially analogous to European opera.
People packed the theaters to see and be seen and simply enjoy the art of kabuki: classical dance-drama dating back to the 14th century. The singer-dancers were rock stars, with all the sex and idol worship that we see in our own silly, pop music culture today.
The Japanese publishing industry mass-produced colorful woodblock prints to feed the frenzy of fans and souvenir seekers, and they have withstood the test of time – the prints, of course, not the souvenir seekers. I hope our classic rock posters hold up half as well. The UMMA has such an amazing collection of Asian art on paper and silk that the permanent galleries have to be rotated three times a year. In addition to the kabuki show the fall rotation will include Chinese paintings from the 19th and 20th century by the Ren family. My favorite is a hanging scroll, Scholar with Roosters (right), depicting, unsurprisingly, a scholar with two roosters. The backstory is that this is an ancient Chinese fable about a learned man who kept the roosters in his study, when one day they started conversing with him like cultured gentlemen. That would be fun, don’t you think, as long as they didn’t start taking credit for the sunrise.
“The Aesthetic Movement in America: Artists of the Photo-Secession” (running through March 5, 2017) is a chance for the UMMA to show off its stunning collection of early artistic photography. Photography was invented in the mid to late 1800s, but by the turn of the century it went from a curiosity to an art form, championed by the “Pictoralists,” an international movement that sought to position photography as fine art comparable to painting.
In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz and others founded the Photo-Secession group in New York. When you see “secession” in the name of an art movement it means that they are seceding from something, in this case the National Arts Club, which had preached that photography should reproduce images as seen in contemporary art. Much as Impressionism was a secession from the established Academy, the Photo-secessionists believed that the artist should manipulate the image, in this case with expensive and time-consuming methods, to produce the final work that the artist has in mind.
To be honest, to me these are just great photos. But to see the real things in person is a rare treat, like seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre instead of in a book. The exhibition features work by the principal Pictorialists, including Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Gertrude Käsebier, famous for her portraits of native Americans and women in Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau garb. These are not your father’s Polaroids, or your selfies.
Works on Paper
Running through January 29, 2017, is “Europe on Paper: The Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection.” The show features forty-seven European works on paper, including drawings, prints and watercolors, all gifts from the late professors emeriti.
You’ll know the names of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Ernst Kirchner, giants in the 20th century’s German Expressionist movement. I’m looking forward to seeing the eighteenth century work of the Italian Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the most innovative draftsman and printmaker of the 18th century.
The whole museum is always free and open the public, an ideal venue for a date or a family outing.