Waves of Inspiration: The Gibbes Museum of Art presents The Great Wave: Japonisme in Charleston

Sea Turtle, 1929 By Anna Heyward Taylor (American, 1879–1956) Woodblock print on paper Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association Sea Turtle, 1929 By Anna Heyward Taylor (American, 1879–1956) Woodblock print on paper Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association

The Gibbes Museum of Art, in Charleston, South Carolina, is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of local and American art. The museum traces its lineage to the start of the 20th century, when local businessman James Shoolbred Gibbes, Sr. left $100,000 in a trust to be used for "the erection or purchase of a suitable building to be used as a Hall or Halls for the exhibition of paintings.” Since then, the Gibbes has developed a significant fine arts collection that spans from the eighteenth century through the present and provides an in-depth understanding of American art and patronage from a Charleston perspective. This perspective often allows for connections between global and local elements, such as Charleston’s historic love affair with Japanese art, particularly the influence of Japanese prints on the artists of the Charleston Renaissance period. In honoring this Japanese-inspired history, the Gibbes is currently exhibiting The Great Wave: Japonisme in Charleston.

This exhibition features 35 works from the Read-Simms Collection of Japanese prints accompanied by works produced by Charleston artists, including Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Alfred Hutty, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Antoinette Guerard Rhett. It also includes prints created by masters of Japan’s Ukiyo-e school and examines the influence of Japanese printmaking on the artists of the Charleston Renaissance (1915 to 1945) who found inspiration in the prints’ dynamic compositions and bold color schemes.

The Gibbes has been the home of the Read-Simms Collection of Japanese prints since 1948.  After retiring from Harvard University, where he was a professor of physiology, Motte Alston Read settled in Charleston and began collecting Japanese prints in 1909. Read sought a collection representative of the history of Japanese woodblock printing and acquired a cross section of styles, types, and methods from a wide range of artists. The collection includes rare examples of works by Sharaku, Haranobu, Hokusai, and Hiroshige and is an invaluable treasure to the city, a reminder of the significant influence of the Japanese aesthetic on American art.

Rough Sea at the Naruto in Awa Province No. 55 from the series Pictures of Famous Places in the Sixty Odd Provinces, 1855 By Ichiryusai Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858) Woodblock print on paper Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association Rough Sea at the Naruto in Awa Province No. 55 from the series Pictures of Famous Places in the Sixty Odd Provinces, 1855 By Ichiryusai Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858) Woodblock print on paper Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association

Read’s collection of Japanese prints was donated to the Gibbes in 1947 by his sister, Mary Alston Read Simms. A second group of over 100 prints collected by Simms and her first husband, Dr. Joseph Hume, was given to the Gibbes in 1954. A third group in the collection, presented to the museum by Myra VanDerslice Holcombe in 1967, is today known as the Read-Simms Collection of Japanese Prints. While a small selection of prints from the Read-Simms collection are often included in galleries featuring the permanent collection, a special feature exhibition of the prints from the collection has not been on display since about 2005.

Although the show is mainly print based, artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith offers a watercolor for her piece Deep Water, ca 1930, illustrating a wave at what looks to be high tide. The element of water is something that Charleston shares with Japan, as both areas’ histories and cultures reflect coastal identities. Rough Sea at the Naruto in Awa Province No. 55, from the series Pictures of Famous Places in the Sixty Odd Provinces, 1855, by Japanese artist Ichiryusai Hiroshige, is a woodblock print on paper. It illustrates an aggressive and chaotic version of a seascape, where the medium of watercolor itself, leans toward a more dreamy illustration. American artist Anna Heyward Taylor achieves this effect in her woodblock print on paper, Sea Turtle, 1929, which shows a sea turtle about to re-enter the water, its foaming waves curving high.

Both this shared focus on water and the wider legacy of Japanese influence on Charleston artists highlights the intriguing, often surprising connections between global movements and local identity in art. The Gibbes is uniquely situated to explore these connections in Charleston, and The Great Wave presents a visually rich snapshot of this phenomenon.

The Great Wave: Japonisme in Charleston is on view at the Gibbes Museum until March 23, 2014.