Now a prolific collector of Japanese art, Irwin Lavenberg of Portland likes to tell the story about his childhood and how he rarely left home.
He grew up in Queens, New York "in a family that didn't travel," he said.
"It took a year of planning to get us from Queens to Teaneck, New Jersey," Lavenberg said. "I didn't go many places."
Fast forward to adulthood, and Lavenberg discovered the art, culture and history of Japan through his many travels as an engineer with Sony Corp. But it wasn't until later years — and into retirement starting in 2003 — that Lavenberg expanded his collection of Japanese woodblock prints, and his diverse and large (2,500 pieces and counting) collection ranks as one of the best private collections in the United States.
Portland Japanese Garden is hosting a collection of Lavenberg's art in its final exhibition of the year. The "Ukiyo-e to Shin Hanga: Changing Tastes in Japanese Woodblock Prints" exhibit is his second exhibition at Portland Japanese Garden, and it shows at the garden through the end of January 2022. He's also poised to have an exhibit of prints open at Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at University of Oregon in Eugene.
The Portland Art Museum has also hosted Lavenberg's collection before, and he has done many private exhibitions.
"I've been collecting for 23, 24 years, and I've always collected with the thought of sharing prints," he said.
Lavenberg points out that his website, myjapanesehanga.com, produces extensive traffic, as it's used by curators, art historians and general public.
Lavenberg said he remembers being enchanted by Japan and its art, culture and history. On his business trips he would take in "something cultural, whether it was a theater performance or spending free time at the Tokyo National Museum," he said. "For a kid who never traveled, it was pretty amazing going to Tokyo. I had seen Times Square, but the first time I walked outside of Shinjuku Station (rail), and got hit with the lights and saw the thousand of people in the streets …" it was wonderment.
He began collecting prints in 1998.
"I'm interested in how prints from Japan tell the story of a modern nation," he said. He focused on prints from just before the Meiji Reformation and during the reformation from 1868-1912, and also the shin hanga era of 1918 to the 1970s.
The Portland Japanese Garden show will feature prints from two masters of the exquisitely rendered pieces toward the end of the Japanese woodblock print popularity — Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) and Kawase Hasui (1883-1957).
Woodblock artistry dates back to the eighth century in Japan. It entails an artist sketching images, a carver carving images into wood and then a print shop using dynamic color to produce sheets of art from the wooden form.
The ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") era features dazzling color and texture to depict glamorous women, daring heroes and serene landscapes, but also kabuki theater, which piqued Lavenberg's interest. He saw that James Michener and other authors were promoters of the artistic method. It was a big business in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
"Kunichika was the last of a long lineage of a school of artists who concentrated on scenes of depicting kabuki theater," he said. "He was a master in the use of colors.
"He worked until his death, almost exclusively in prints of kabuki theater, some 8,000, 9,000 designs in his lifetime. He featured major stars with stylized faces, classic poses."
Shin hanga, which means "new prints," refers to the resurgence of woodblock print popularity in the early 20th century. It started roughly around 1918 when a publisher, Shozaburo Watanabe, believed he could make a market for fine art from them. He picked a landscape artist named Kawase Hasui to promote the artistry.
The two artists were quite different — Kunichika an outgoing individual who befriend kabuki artists, Hasui a once-sickly private person who enjoyed serenity of the countryside.
"Today, the shin hanga prints, which weren't collected and bought in the pre-World War II period, have become really popular in Japan," Lavenberg said.
Lavenberg, who moved to Portland upon retirement and lives in the Pearl District, has done much research on woodblock art, and he serves on the advisory committee at the Portland State University Center of Japanese Studies. The department and Portland Japanese Garden have been working on a more in-depth relationship, Lavenberg said.
He points out Portland's long history of engagement with Japan and its large community of Japanese Americans as a basis for his continued affection for Japanese woodblock prints and pride in his collection.
"I'm really grateful to the city," he said.
The exhibit of prints "Ukiyo-e to Shin Hanga: Changing Tastes in Japanese Woodblock Prints" is available to see 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays at Portland Japanese Garden, 611 S.W. Kingston Ave., through Jan. 30, 2022. Regular admission is $18.95. For more information: www.japanesegarden.org.
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