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.
Another highlight of our discussion was learning how Impressionist painters such as Van Gogh and Monet looked for inspiration in Japanese artwork, even before the prints were featured more prominently in the wider art world. The prints gained popularity amongst this small group of French painters who were entranced by their delicacy and complexity. They gave the painters a burst of energy manifested in later Impressionist works.
Personal favorites of mine from the many prints David kindly showed us included some of the mythological and legend-centered prints, such as Fujiwara no Yasumasa Plays the Flute by Moonlight from Yoshitoshi; one black and white contemporary one, Zen Circle, by Gayko, as well as a particularly beautiful one of a Samurai under water, Saito Toshimoto Nyudo Ryuhon, by Kuniyoshi.
David explained that while there are two exact copies of this Samurai print, one is valued much more than the other due to the clarity of the insignia on it, although the colors on the other print are much more vivid. This was an important insight for me into the mechanisms of the art market and understanding what is important to collectors, and what, henceforth, has the most worth.
I would like to conclude with something David said, on a different subject, that stuck with me more than anything else. As we began our conversation, David told us that he had worked in real-estate before taking the reins of the gallery. He changed jobs because he wanted to do something he was truly passionate about, and spending time in the gallery with the artwork he loved was what he really cared about. He encouraged me to follow my own passions for viewing and thinking about art (i.e. art criticism). While I listened to what he said, when he said, only when it had sunk in for a few days did I realize how much that mattered. Just a few days later, I was having dinner with my family and one of our dinner guests said that while he wishes he could have pursued a career in art, he just was not able to follow his dreams, and flat-out told me I shouldn’t either. I was pretty upset about this, but after discussing the whole affair with my parents, I realized that there are some people that try to inspire you, and foster passion in you, but there are other people in the world that want to bring you down.
But here I’m not passing on our guest’s message; I’m passing on David’s. We might not all be able to follow our dreams to the end or abandon well-paying jobs to spend years, say, playing professional-level squash, but I leave you with a more simplistic task: begin your new year with a revived enthusiasm for whatever you love and take the first steps to make it a greater part of your life.