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The Healing Power of Art: A Major Collection of Japanese Art Tours the Disaster Areas of Tōhoku
An Interview with Joe & Etsuko Price, Collectors of Japanese Art

In March 2013 the world-renowned Price Collection returns to Japan with “Jakuchū’s Here,” a six-month show that will bring more than 100 artistic masterpieces of the Edo period (1603–1868) to museums in the three prefectures worst affected by the triple disaster of March 2011. We spoke to Joe and Etsuko Price about their hopes for the exhibition and the joys of Edo period art.

Joe Price

Joe PriceBorn in Oklahoma in 1929. First encountered Japanese art as a young man in the 1950s, when he stumbled upon a painting by Edo-period painter Itō Jakuchū in a Madison Avenue antique shop. It was a chance event that changed his life. More than half a century later, Price is one of the world’s most important collectors of Japanese art, and has built up the world's largest private collection of paintings by Jakuchū. In 2006, an exhibition of highlights from the Price Collection at the National Museum in Tokyo attracted more visitors per day than any other exhibition in the world that year.

Etsuko Price

Etsuko PriceBorn in Tottori Prefecture. Met Joe Price in 1963, when she worked as his translator and interpreter on an art-collecting trip to Japan. The couple were married in 1966, and live in Los Angeles.

INTERVIEWER Why bring this show to this part of Japan at this time?

JOE PRICE The destruction caused by the disaster of March 2011 was so devastating that I wanted to bring something that could lighten the sadness. We showed a similar collection of paintings in Japan in 2006. That was the first time this art had ever really been seen in Japan. I mean, it had been shown earlier—but in the standard way, where the art was just hung behind glass with spotlights on it. I have a hatred for spotlights on Japanese art!

At the Tokyo National Museum, they allowed one room to have no cases, no glass. And they lit the paintings horizontally, as they were always lit in Edo Japan, coming through the shōji door. The real beauty of this art is the fact that it’s never the same. If you’ve ever seen a Japanese painting lit with horizontal light, without glass . . . when a cloud passes in front of the sun, you’ll see ten or twenty different paintings.

This time, unfortunately, I don’t think it will be possible to do the same thing. It costs so much, and the museums we’ll be showing at hardly have any windows. They are beautiful buildings, but it’s all cases and artificial light—so we’ll just have to suffer!

ETSUKO PRICE This time, we don’t want to make a fuss about demanding natural light. It’s an important part of seeing the paintings, but the people in Tōhoku suffered so much. One of the main aims this time is to give them joy. Many people lost everything, including their families. They are still living with rubble and ugliness in their daily surroundings. We hope that seeing these beautiful things will help to encourage them.

So many people warned us not to go. They said it was too dangerous because of the radiation. If everybody listened to that kind of rumor, think of how much the Japanese would lose just because of the activity of one electricity company. People say, “Aren’t you scared?” I tell them taking a taxi in Tokyo is scarier! Somebody needed to take a major exhibition to Tōhoku to let them see we’re not afraid, especially Americans. It’s a good way to show American encouragement.

Bringing Japanese Art Back Home

INTERVIEWER The Price Collection is an American collection of Japanese art. In a sense, do you feel you’re bringing these works of art back home?

JOE Oh, yes. When we held the show back in 2006 at the Tokyo National Museum, the first day, it was just the standard museum people coming. Then one day during the first week, one of the guards came running up to me, saying: “Don’t be alarmed, but a group of Takeshita Street kids from Harajuku are coming in, with spiky hair and big socks and everything. But don’t worry: We’re watching them carefully!” And sure enough, these kids eventually came in. They came in and they were very quiet. Some of them had tears coming down their faces. They sat on the floor, some of them hugging one another. One of them came up and thanked me for showing them their own art. They had never realized that these paintings could be so beautiful. And this was constant throughout Japan. The show traveled to four different places. And the curators of every museum were always telling me, “But these people are so young. We’ve never had young people in the museum like this before.” They must’ve gone home, gone on the Internet, and told their friends, because from the second week on, the museum was just packed. That show at the Tokyo National Museum eventually drew more people per day than any other exhibition in the world that year. And I realized that these kids were the same age I was when I saw my first Japanese painting.

ETSUKO This coming exhibition is basically for children. They are the ones who will have to rebuild the Tōhoku region in the future. We want to encourage the children not to forget who they are. Admission is free for high school students and below. By visiting this exhibition, they can learn about Japanese history and the culture of Edo. Reminding children of their history is an important part of the exhibition. If the politicians had been more aware of local history, they would never have built a nuclear power station in a place that is hit by a major tsunami every hundred years or so. If you visit the Sendai Museum, they have the facts written right there on the wall!  

Improving on nature

INTERVIEWER What is the appeal of Jakuchū’s works?(*1)

JOE It’s not just Jakuchū. It’s all the Edo painters. Basically, all outside influence was cut off. Japan was an island in the art world and its art came out of the Japanese feeling. The Japanese strength was their love of nature. They worked their art with a skill that is beyond imagination. That’s the thing I saw when I first encountered these paintings as a young man.

I worked with Frank Lloyd Wright when I was young.(*2) And he taught me how you can take a mountain and mutilate it—how to cut into it, dig out the soil, and bring in bricks and wood and build a structure. And when he was finished, the hill was more beautiful than ever! He took nature and improved on it. And that is what Japanese art of the Edo period did. It’s about taking nature and making it more beautiful—leaving out everything that isn’t necessary.

The one major art to survive from Edo was flower arranging. Kabuki also came through. But with most of the other arts, once the islands were opened to the rest of the world, things started to change. They lost their skills.

But the rest of the world still comes over to learn Japanese flowers. They take a flower, it’s a beautiful flower, and they rip some leaves off and pluck them, and twist the stem, bend it, mutilate the poor thing and stick it in a vase. And then people who see it exclaim: How did you ever find such a beautiful flower? Again, it’s improving on nature. Real flowers do not grow like that. Bonsai trees don’t look like that. They look more like a tree, or more like a flower than the natural thing. Look at geisha. There is nothing left of a human being except femininity. Their faces are painted white, their features are all the same. She’s wearing an obi that hides her breasts. All that’s left is the essence.

I think if the Japanese had left the paintings in natural light, they would never have been forgotten. When I first came to Japan, I’d been buying art for fifteen years and I didn’t know a single artist’s name. I found these paintings in dumps, basically, in San Francisco, and in one store on Madison Avenue in New York.

Nobody knew Jakuchū’s name. I found out his name when I came across a book with reproductions of 30 pictures of his. And they’re the most beautiful paintings ever painted, I think.

It was a very lonely profession back then. Nobody liked Japanese art in Oklahoma! I don’t think much about being known as “the man who reintroduced Jakuchū,” or anything like that. I think of the beauty of the paintings.

INTERVIEWER What do you look for in a work of art?

JOE One way is to get back as far as you can from the painting. Then slowly get closer. If it gets better as you get closer, it’s generally a good painting. If I see skill in it, even if the painting’s not particularly beautiful, the last thing I do is beg the dealer to turn off the goddamn light! They always tell me: “Oh, we can’t do that! The building’s too old. We don’t have dimmers.” I tell them: I don’t want them dimmed, I want no light! If the painting jumps to life when the lights go off, then that’s a guarantee. I don’t know how many paintings I would never have acquired had they not turned off those lights. When the lights go down, you see more.

(Interview recorded on November 14, 2012.)

Jakuchu’s Here

Miyagi (Sendai) March 1–May 6, Sendai City Museum
Iwate May 18–July 15, Iwate Museum of Art
Fukushima July 27–September 23, Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art


Joe Prices’s Comments on Two Screen Paintings from the Coming Exhibition

Itō Jakuchū: Flowers, Trees, Animals: Life (Mosaic Screen with Birds, Animals, Flowers, and Trees)

If you walk past this screen, in the proper lighting, the colors change on the animals and the birds. Jakuchū developed a method of using glossy and matte paint side by side on the same painting. The glossy paint gives off a reflective light. When you are right in front of it, with the horizontal light coming in, it bounces straight back. But if you are off to the side, you don’t see it. The matte paint diffuses the light. Light you see everywhere. So as you’re walking by, this animal will change almost into silk. The Metropolitan Museum sent their head scientist down with microscopic cameras, and he blew up these images so that you can see which parts are glossy and which parts are matte. This had to be a deliberate technique that Jakuchū applied when he painted the screen—and that was 250 years ago!

Nagasawa Rosetsu: White Elephant and Black Bull

This painting I just learned about recently. I’ve had it for forty years, but I hadn’t noticed. I bought two Australian shepherd dogs recently—twins. They are the most fun, and I’ve learned so much from them. But one of them is definitely what you might call the “A” personality. She controls the other one and tells her what to do. If the other dog’s eating a bone she wants, all she has to do is look at it, and the other dog will just put the bone down and walk off. In this picture, the white elephant is a symbol of Buddhism. And the bull is a symbol of Shintō. When you put them facing one another, he looks powerful, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that his eyes are looking right up at the elephant. He looks so cowardly alongside Buddhism! When we put them on display next to each other, at an angle, we finally noticed—it’s so obvious.


A selection of highlights from the exhibition “Jakuchū’s Here” can be seen in the gallery below.

Photographs courtesy of the Etsuko and Joe Price Collection.


(*1) ^ Painter of the mid-Edo period (1716–1800). Born into a Kyoto merchant family, his many masterpieces are among the greatest treasures of Japanese art.

(*2) ^ One of the masters of twentieth-century architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) is famous for buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In Japan, his best-known building was the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which has since been demolished. He was also a keen collector of woodblock prints.

  • [2013.03.01]
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