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We begin with a discovery, a fling, a leap into the unknown. But eventually, as infatuation turns to a more meaningful attachment, and the prints begin to pile up around us, we all have to face the question "just what am I doing here?" And it's in the answer to this question, however you choose to formulate it, that the true art of the collection begins.
Anyone can gather prints. With enough financial resources, you could have thousands. And yet, time and the energy of careful appreciation are limited.
When I look at some of the early twentieth century collectors, who gathered thousands of examples, I can only shudder. Were these men collecting prints for appreciation - but how could anyone appreciate thousands of prints, in any more than the most abstract way? - or simply to have more and more?
At the opposite extreme, we have Louis Ledoux, the collector par excellence, who limited the size of his collection to 250 prints, and forced himself to part with one fine work when he had been able to acquire one he deemed better. Collecting in Ledoux's definition was not an endless desire for more, but rather an exercise in connoisseurship, a drive to look, analyze, evaluate and make critical decisions about the beauty and value of one fine print in comparison to another. His collection, rather than an unwieldy pile, was a finely polished stone.
Our answer to the question of why to collect need not resemble Ledoux's. But we do need to answer it, at some point, in our own way.
Many collectors begin by purchasing anything low priced and affordable that comes along. But somewhere around the fiftieth print, the law of decreasing returns begins to set in. Is there a need for a fifty-first? Why purchase this print, inexpensive though it be, when I already have one like it?
One may feel at this point that one is done collecting, or that some of the initial purchases have been made in error.
But this is wrong. In fact, without those purchases, the collector would not be able to identify what is valuable to him/her. And rather than being done with collecting, the collecting adventure has just begun.
Collecting is the art of discriminating, according to the personal set of values that you establish over the years of acquiring, evaluating and appreciating prints, which pieces appeal to you most deeply, or which have meaning for you according to the kind of collection you have determined to establish.
These criteria cannot, and should not, be rushed, but rather must grow out of engagement with one's prints. I personally know of several collectors who attempted to set the goal of their collecting too early, and became frustrated because of it.
One decided table of contents pages for albums would be an interesting niche that no one had yet meaningfully explored, but when he went about collecting a number of these, he found his heart was not in it. Another decided she wanted to collect all of Yoshitoshi's 100 Phases of the Moon, but the energy and funds that went into this hunt ended in disaster, as she ultimately found little point in putting together a group of pieces that already appear (in better impressions than hers) in an easily purchased art book.
But these false starts are natural, and most collectors go through them several times in the attempt to define just what it is that they are seeking. Rather than signifying the end of a collecting career, these were fruitful dead-ends that redirected these particular collectors to look again at their prints and determine just what was really valuable to them.
The soundest advice one can give a collector who has not yet determined his/her particular specialization or purpose for collecting is to build a representative collection, a broad gathering of prints reflecting the periods, artists, styles and subject matter of the entire history of Japanese prints.
In fact, the maintaining of a representative collection is a sound goal in and of itself, and many find no need to specialize beyond this. But within this gathering of prints from the primitives to the moderns you will doubtless feel a deeper connection with some period, artist or subject than with others.
Some will find warrior prints dull or even repugnant, others will find in them drama, excitement, and a deep connection with history that other Japanese prints lack. Some will find bijin pictures formulaic and uninteresting, others will find in them the elegant colors and design that constitute the very definition of ukiyo-e.
These tastes do not need to be forced or rationally chosen, they will come out of you naturally, over time, in the act of appreciating and comparing the prints you have gathered. Some prints will inspire awe, a deep respect of their refined technique and/or artistic substance, and you will simply know "this is it!" And these experiences will define for you what is not it, and allow you to begin making discriminations, and specialization.
Some may disagree with me on this point, and I respect their opinion, but I believe that to form a collection with the highest sort of meaning, some degree of specialization is necessary. Specialization does not mean that the gathering of a representative collection must be given up, but rather that certain areas of that representation will remain thin, whereas others will be expanded and developed.
The decision of what to focus on, again, must come from within, from one's experiences with a variety of prints. The focus need not be single either, though of course it will be difficult to allocate resources if your interests are spread too thin.
Why is it necessary to specialize? Because, I would argue, related prints take on added meaning when they are placed in connection with one another.
Look at a single Bunka Era kabuki print by Kunisada and the coloring may seem attractive, the action perhaps over-dramatic, but the design somewhat interesting. But look at a collection of fine Bunka Era kabuki prints, and suddenly each print within the group takes on meaning in connection with the others. One notices the full palette of colors used and the harmonies between them, the varieties of figures and postures, the use of certain accepted shorthand representations, the reappearance of the same actor in different roles and the varying expressive techniques used to depict him in each.
In short, one begins to see the "Bunka kabuki style" rather than just the style of any one print. The same holds true of any specialization in artist, theme, format or period. One can see the growth of an artist or the development of a theme, the variety within a format or the style of a given time, in a way that no one single print can display.
Personally, I feel it is important not to make one's specialization simply a "dead" category, as with those who feel they must have every work by a particular artist, who make a checklist of a series, or buy just any and every fan print or surimono that comes available.
While such an approach may have some academic value, in terms of complete representation, it will not have the aesthetic value that comes from selecting the very best examples one can find within one's field of specialization.
In other words, a collection specializing in Bunka Era kabuki prints is a step above a random gathering of whatever prints become available at a bargain price, but if one is not selective, it is still only a random gathering of prints, only now of those which fall within a narrower field. To have a collection that represents not simply Bunka Era kabuki, but rather the glories of printmaking within this Era, is a worthy goal for the collector, and has the power to change the way in which this Era is viewed.
Again, the discrimination I am about to make is personal, and all collectors may not agree with me, but I believe the highest value a collection can have is to uncover new ground, to look at prints in a different way, and to find overlooked glories in the prints remaining to us today. In this respect, one need not be a millionaire or have reams of discretionary funds in order to make a meaningful Japanese print collection.
To have an original Sharaku may seem like an achievement indeed, and may be the ultimate goal of some collectors, but I find little value in this sort of collecting. Rather than possessing the known and acknowledged masterpieces of the past, isn't it more satisfying and profound to seek out the unknown, the yet to be understood work of art?
The finest collections have the power of making us see these works in a different way. I think here of such recent examples as the discovery of kuchi-e prints, or of the fascination of Meiji genre prints, or of the very fine work that remains hidden within the huge oeuvres of nineteenth century artists like Kunisada or Kunichika.
To distill from within any of these particular categories the very best pieces one can find, and to display them side by side without any of the filler or hackwork that tarnishes the reputation of these artists or genres is in itself a creative act, allowing us to see the printmaking art in a new light. And for far less than the fifty thousand dollars that will purchase a single, worn Sharaku, several such collections can be built, if one learns to look at prints with one's own sense of value, and to trust what one loves, no matter what the current market evaluation.
Whatever the critics of the 1950s and 60s, with their limited definition of what constitutes "art" in ukiyo-e, may have written, there are still great prints out there, and many of them at an eminently affordable price. The collecting adventure awaits, and is yours to define as you might wish. To trust in your senses and feelings of appreciation, to place your money where your sense of value is, is to take charge of your collection and make of it an aesthetic practice, an art.
And the art of collecting is one that we never cease refining, as we leaf our way through the variety of works remaining, continually finding pieces that redefine the totality of the art for us.
So for me, collecting is not simply an interesting hobby and pastime, it is a way of constantly redefining myself and my sense of what is interesting and beautiful, in connection with the fascinating variety and depths of the works of the past. Collecting is learning to see, to trust our senses and feelings, and to discover who we are and what we love, as we work our way meaningfully through the forms of this world.
(edited by Dieter Wanczura, June 2009)
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