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Sackler Gallery Has Received The Robert O. Muller Collection



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Sackler Gallery Has Received The Robert O. Muller Collection

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A major collection of Japanese prints from the estate of Robert O. Muller of Newtown has been bequeathed to the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, made the announcement of the gift May 21.

Mr Muller, who died on April 10 at the age of 91, had assembled over a period of 70 years a collection of more than 4,000 Japanese prints ranging in date from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century. Internationally exhibited and widely published, the collection has long been regarded by art historians, collectors and curators as the finest of its type in the world. The collection had many suitors and Mr Muller’s intentions for its disposition were not clear until the reading of his will.

Over the course of his lifetime, Mr Muller frequently purchased works directly from the artist and even commissioned now well-known prints, thereby greatly influencing the direction of postwar production in Japan. Selections from his collection have been exhibited in museums in Paris, Lausanne, Amsterdam, the Hague, and Leiden.

Born in Pelham, N.Y., on October 5, 1911, Mr Muller married in 1940. According to an obituary published in the April 14, 2003, issue of The Newtown Bee, Mr Muller “arranged [his honeymoon] trip around meetings with the artists whose work he was already collecting, making contact and lifelong friends with celebrated artists, such as Hasui Kawase and Shinsul Ito, as well as many of the major art publishers.”

In this country, highlights from his comprehensive collection have been the cornerstone of exhibitions at numerous museums including those at Yale University, Cornell University, The Portland Art Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, among others. Numerous scholarly publications and exhibition catalogs from Europe, the United States, and Japan have focused on this remarkably complete collection; the two most comprehensive are The New Wave: Twentieth Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection (1993), and in Japanese, Ukiyo-e Masterpieces in Western Collections: The Muller Collection (1990).

“This is the benchmark collection for understanding so many of the amazing things that happened in Japanese graphic art in the 20th Century,” said Mr Raby. “We are profoundly grateful to Robert Muller for entrusting the Sackler Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution with the remarkable legacy of his prescience, tenacity and uncompromising vision. He assembled a thoroughly beautiful collection that will delight the eye of any visitor and, of course, is of great importance to social and art historians. The appeal of these works is clearly universal.”

In addition to more than 4,000 woodblock prints, Mr Muller’s extensive cataloging records, papers and library will be located in the Sackler. This material will constitute an important archive for research into the history of modern Japanese print movements. Mr Muller’s friendships with many of Japan’s master print designers active in the 1930s is extensively recorded in his papers.

Officially to be known as The Robert O. Muller Collection, the print collection will be housed as a discrete unit within the larger Sackler collection, respecting the intentions of Mr Muller that his collection be understood and appreciated as a whole. Plans for an exhibition of representative prints, establishment of a dedicated research center and a related fellowship program for researchers are now under way.

The collection is particularly rich in works by designers who adapted traditional, idealized print subjects – theater, the pleasure quarters, bird-and-flower and landscape – to modern tastes. Among the works of Ito Shinsui (1898-1972), the pristine Muller impression of a pensive courtesan has been exhibited to acclaim in Europe and the United States. The camp of vamping kabuki actors in male and female roles are presented in exceptional designs by Yoshikawa Kanpo (1894-1979) and Natori Shunsen (1886-1960). The romanticized country and city views of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) are represented in near completeness and in superb condition. Bird-and-flower print artist Ohara Koson (1877-1945) is the subject of a major book in which many Muller prints were used as illustrations. In addition, the Collection includes fine impressions of the major works of Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) whose innovative techniques and stunning designs tackled the challenge presented by the emerging success of photography in the late 19th century.

“Bob’s eye was wonderfully attuned to graphic subtleties,” said James Ulak, Freer and Sackler’s chief curator. “He was totally immersed in the beauty of his prints and loved nothing more than to find an empathetic viewer to share those pleasures. The collection, as it now stands, is the culmination of a lifetime of extremely judicious selecting and pruning. It is an incredible and generous gift to the nation.”

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th Century American art. For more information visit www.asia.si.edu.

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