Americans may have been print-crazy in the '60s, but they never approached the insatiable appetites of the rich and poor, the literati and illiterati, of late 18- and 19-century Japan.
People bought woodblock prints of Mt. Fuji and other popular subjects out of bins set up in the public markets. At the theaters, images of Kabuki matinee idols sold like posters of Led Zeppelin. On a more esoteric plane, poetry clubs and wealthy individuals often commissioned their own print editions to send to friends as greetings for the New Year. These were called surimono .
None of these prints (except for the surimono was highly revered by either Japanese collectors or by Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, who in 1905 decided to jettison his print collection and concentrate on paintings and ceramics.
Happily, the Freer has since had its print collection replenished through gifts, notably those of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer.
Thus, a small but perfect show exploring these two types of woodblock prints -- the popular scenes and the surimono -- is currently on view at this jewel of a museum.
A long, relaxed visit, before a stop at your favorite Oriental restaurant, is a rewarding way to greet the new lunar Year of the Monkey, which began Saturday.
Woodblock printing, we are told in the exhibit's clear, informative labels, was introduced to Japan from China by the 8th century A.D. and by the 17th century was being used to illustrate popular books.
Single-sheet prints appeared for sale soon thereafter, and by the late 18th century, with the development of a process for printing color, the first full-color prints went into mass production.
Designed by famous artists for a fixed sum, the blocks actually were cut and printed by artisans working for a publisher, sometimes at the rate of 1,000 a day. The show begins with a print dating from 1765, along with the block from which it was pulled.
To satisfy the demand, artists soon began working in series. And to increase the size of their images without increasing the size of the blocks and paper, they began printing ever more ambitious compositions as diptychs, triptychs and even pentatychs. One striking example of a diptych here portrays two Kabuki actors (one to a sheet of paper) going full tilt at their drama, their eyes crossed in symbolic intensity. The hairstyles and costumes are precisely rendered . It is hard to imagine these two as the Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds of their time, but they were.
One of the best-known artists of the late 18th century, Itamaro, is represented here by a splendid triptych portraying the treasure ship that is supposed to sail into port on the New York, laden with symbols of longevity -- the pine, bamboo, the plum and the crane. The lines flow rhythmically over the three sheets of paper, masterfully integrated despite the interruptions. A five-part tour de force by Toyokumi, burlesquing the pomp of military processions by replacing samurai with courtesans, sweeps over five sheets.
While they lack the drama of the popular prints, the smaller, more finely cut surimono represents a very special class of Edo period Japanese print that peaked between 1770 and 1830. There are several delicate, exquisite examples here, made by some of the greatest artists of the period.
The subject matter here is usually more contemplative, more poetic -- not surprising, given the fact that it was the literati (and sometimes the poetry clubs) that made these commissions. Poetry was often incorporated into the images, which usually consist of one or two figures quietly regarding a flower arrangements, sitting in a study or pausing beside a stream.
In one of the most enchanting examples by Hokkei, the best of the Hokusai students, one of the Chinese Immortals watches an umbrella float down from the sky, bearing a message from his teacher.
There also are some fine portrayals of Kabuki actors in this genre commissioned to commemorate the name-change ceremonies undertaken by actors.
The presence of an animal from the cycle of 12 zodiacal animals often indicates the year the work was commissioned, thus "Two Roosters" here have been dated 1825, the Year of the Cock.
"Warrior With a Monkey" dates from the early 19th century but may be a good omen for this new Year of the Monkey. The monkey here presents a sword to a warrior under a blossoming plum tree -- a symbol of longevity. The show continues through April 1.