Explore dynamic Japanese history

From fluttering geishas to near-Cubist landscapes, the sweep of Japanese woodblock prints tells a long story - a story now being told at Tacoma Art Museum.

“Edo to Tacoma” shows off both TAM’s extensive collection of woodblock prints and narrates Japanese history from the Edo period to World War II. But it tells a few other stories, too: how this delicate art form changed, and how the city got its share of Old Japan through some unusual residents.

“We chose the exhibit’s title to reflect ideas that these fragile, beautiful works on paper came all the way from Edo (the old name for Tokyo),” says curator Zoe Donnell, who will give a talk and gallery guide next Wednesday morning. “And they’re now here in Tacoma. What’s their story?”

The story’s an interesting one, on all levels. Tacoma Art Museum is up there along with regional museums such as the Seattle Art Museum in having an extensive print collection – there are 350 works by Japanese printmakers, ranging from the 17th to 20th centuries.

In “Edo to Tacoma,” 140 of these will be on display, rotating them by halves over two eight-week sessions to protect them from light exposure. It’s an admirable collection, which is getting its biggest showing ever as part of the museum’s 75th anniversary celebration.

This is art that tells a sweeping historical story.

The earliest prints date from around 1680, when Edo dynasty artists such as Hishikawa Morunobu were hand-coloring their work and setting the scene for the famous ukiyo-e period. Ukiyo-e, meaning ‘pictures of floating world,’ sought to capture on paper the fleeting delights of life in old Toyko – the cherry blossoms, the courtesans, the landscape. Then in the Meiji dynasty, as Japanese life changed dramatically with the first U.S. ships arrival in 1853, so too did the prints change, showing oddly-dressed foreigners entering Yokohama, hotels built with Western architectural influences and the like.

“It’s a dynamic history being recorded in art,” says Donnell.

And in the final part of the story, the prints take us through the first half of the 20th century, showing the tumultuous events of World War II and Japanese angst on how to balance Western culture with their own.

Parallel to world history, the prints tell the story of Japanese art. Printmaking progressed from hand-coloring to the polychromatic prints of famous artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai (creator of the tsunami view of Mount Fuji).

As artists became exposed to Western art, practices also changed: A single artist replaced the traditional collaborative process, influences such as cubism and expressionism inspired broad color fields and contemporary subject matter, and artists also realized there was a huge market for old-style prints in the West.

“It’s one of the really thrilling things about this exhibition that it shows such a breadth of time in one gallery,” Donnell says.

But maybe the most interesting story in all this is how all of these prints got to Tacoma.

“The bulk of our collection comes from two families of collectors,” explains Donnell. “A lot of prints came in 1971 from the late Constance Lyon, a descendant of the founder of the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Co., who developed an interest in Japanese prints as a girl after hearing a lecture on ukiyo-e at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Lyon went on to develop friendships with international experts on Japanese prints, and 266 works in the TAM collection are there thanks to her generosity.

Another 52 works were donated to the museum in 2006 by local arts patrons Al and Betsy Buck.

Al Buck had inherited an eclectic collection from his ancestor Alfred Eliab Buck, a Civil War Union Army captain who in 1897 was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Empire of Japan – a kind of proto-ambassador.

In the five years he held the position before his death, he amassed a collection of prints, which were carefully stored by the family for the next 100 years.

“Edo to Tacoma” will be a hushed experience: To protect the delicate paper and inks, light levels will be kept low.

But there’s plenty of energetic hands-on programming in all things Japanese.

As well as lectures in Japanese history and art, there’ll be an Arts Bento afternoon this month combining practical origami, matcha tea, sumi-e painting and haiku; plus ongoing foam-cut printing in the art studio and a touchable sample of washi paper and printmaking equipment in the exhibit itself.

In January, the museum will hold a Japanese evening event, and a koto (traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument) concert.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568,