A few months ago, I had a chance to learn about a corner of the art world that was new to me and will be interesting to you. The Ronin Gallery is an oasis of serenity and beauty amidst the grit and chaos of Midtown Manhattan. It is kind of like the art-world secret that isn’t a secret, but it’s hidden location– the upper levels of an office building on the lower end of Madison Avenue– certainly makes it appear that way. The gallery is owned by the Libertson family of New York whose enterprises are mainly real-estate-related. How they came about owning what is the largest and most important collection of Japanese woodblock prints outside of Asia is a remarkable story. The Libertson patriarch came across his first Japanese woodblock print by chance many years ago in his travels to the Orient, fell in love with it, and since then amassed a gargantuan collection of the prints, later transforming it into a business enterprise.
I was invited to the gallery with my father by David Libertson, the son of the gallery’s founders, and the person who now runs it. I had the privilege to learn from him not just of the gallery’s background but also an in-depth history of the evolution of Japanese woodblock-prints. Having known nothing about this prior to my visit, I was in for a real treat as David described his pieces in terms of the evolution of both artistic style and crafting technique. Aided by his assistant Maggie, a PhD student at Columbia focusing specifically on Asian art-history, David detailed for us the influence of the socio-economical state in Japan had on the artworks produced. Mr. Libertson explained that the push for more graphically sophisticated woodblock printing followed a long period of simple cut-outs and came from the development of a richer merchant class and their endless wealth, which inspired gaudiness and lewdness as a form of cultural expression. This merchant class had a surplus of money that could not be used to climb the social ranks due to the rigid class structure of Japan, and so this money went to fund entertainment. I found this fascinating and loved seeing how the social environment was an intrinsic driver of the production and style of art. (more…)