Prints From the collection of Ruth Muschel and Gillies McKenna at Wolfson College, Oxford.
We attended the opening of an exhibition of Japanese prints from the private collection of ukiyo-e belonging to Ruth Muschel and Gillies McKenna at Wolfson College, Oxford last weekend. The exhibition runs throughout the summer of 2019 and exemplifies how a spectacular and visually ravishing collection of fine works can be methodically assembled over a lifetime of acquisition. Ruth and Gillies have been collecting Japanese prints for forty-five years and the collection, at least so far as it is hung here, shows a knowing and informed passion for the floating world of nineteenth century Japan.
In his introduction to the show, Professor McKenna described how he and Ruth Muschel happened upon a print by Kunisada in a Brooklyn yard sale and gradually – as much through chance finds as intention – the collection also began to develop. This is so much the case for many collectors. Enthusiasts are driven by the ‘scent’ of a print as much as by the obligation to become a completist or indeed by major financial considerations. Japanese prints are by art auction standards still absurdly cheap. It is possible to be utterly moved by a print at the British Museum or the Art Institute Chicago and to acquire its identical twin for the price of a (admittedly expensive) shirt.
The selection is usefully divided into the principle genres of woodblock production. The first room has a tremendous hang of Kunisada actor portraits, (the prints throughout the whole show are sympathetically displayed in frames supplied by a now defunct Philadelphia dealer) and it really did strike me how commanding these relatively commonplace items are when presented en masse. The other parts of the exhibition are devoted to landscape… dominated unsurprisingly by Hiroshige, Myth and monsters… ditto with Kuniyoshi and a thoughtful section on poetry with all three of the giants of nineteenth century ukiyo-e; Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige in series such as the 100 Ogura Poets.
There are some nice juxtapositions here; in the photograph above is the particularly pleasing comparison of Hiroshige’s startling print of Hakone from the Great Tokaido Road series hanging next to Kunisada’s outrageous crib of the same scene… this time with a Kunisada young female hovering in front.
There are many such pleasing juxtapositions. This is a thoughtful and beautifully hung exhibition. It shows how a tremendous and very personal collection can shine with, by the owners’ admission, relatively little in the way of investment. The exhibition was made possible by the encouragement of Sir Tim Hitchens, currently the President of Wolfson College, prior to that he was HM Ambassador to Japan. The show is at Wolfson College Oxford throughout the summer.