I recently viewed the Max Palevsky Collection of Japanese Woodblock Prints at
LACMA and can recommend it to anyone living in the LA area. The exhibit consists of 50 prints by three artists collected by Palevsky: Harunobu, Utamaro, and the most famous of the three, Hokusai (his "Great Wave" is the star of LACMA's permanent collection of Japanese woodblock prints).
The curator who ran the tour of the exhibit explained that in their time Japanese woodblock prints served the same sort of function as photographs do today--they were mass produced and intended for mass consumption, and they were also highly disposable. Not surprisingly, subjects were often those with mass appeal: scenic spots, celebrities from the opera and theater, beautiful women.
My favorite of the three artists was Harunobu. His color palette was muted but distinct, his compositions strong, and I especially liked his depictions of women in quiet moments of reflection. There were several gorgeous examples of triptychs by Utamaro--sophisticated three-panel prints that were unified by a single horizontal element, such as a scarf or long boat, running across the panels.
The Hokusai prints included several examples from his print sequences Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and Eight Waterfalls. I've reproduced one of the Thirty-six Views prints from the exhibit, called "Couriers Leaving Sekiya Village on the Sumida River," below.
One of my favorite things about the exhibit was hearing about Max Palevsky's strategy for collecting these prints. Palevsky, who made his fortune in high tech, chose to impose order on his collection by limiting it to 50 prints. Once he had collected 50 prints, he was forced to "trade up"--that is, he had to discard one of the 50 in order to replace it with another print of higher quality. As the quality of his collection steadily increased, his choices of what to keep and what to discard became more excruciating as the qualitative distinctions between prints grew finer and finer.
For a collector of large monetary means like Palevsky, limiting his collection to 50 prints makes perfect sense. If one is strapped for cash, then collecting quantities of any item is a challenge, and the joy of collecting comes from overcoming those obstacles to accumulation. But if one is very wealthy, the obstacles to quantity do not exist. It is by restricting quantity artificially that the wealthy collector is able to invoke the drama of loss and recovery that animates the collector's passion.