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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fair
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Gifts of the Ebb Tide highlights some of the Chazen Museum's finest Japanese prints
Many of the works contain poetry and calligraphy.

Every museum collection has its particular strengths. Local lovers of Japanese prints -- or elegant design in general -- are lucky that the UW Chazen Museum of Art has significant holdings of high-quality prints. The museum is showing off a recent purchase and some long-held prints in the exquisite Gifts of the Ebb Tide: The Sea in Japanese Prints, (through Sept. 1).

The show takes its name from a series of eight color woodcuts by Kitagawa Utamaro. Also known as The Shell Book, the series melds Utamaro's images with the efforts of poets and calligraphers. The poets wrote five-line poems to go with Utamaro's delicate images of different types of shells. Page two of Gifts of the Ebb Tide is probably the simplest but also one of the loveliest, with six kinds of shells arrayed along the bottom of the page and a poem related to each type hovering above in graceful calligraphy.

As in Utamaro's other prints, there's a wonderful use of negative space (open, unprinted space on the paper). Utamaro lets his images breathe, lending them a delicacy and making subtle touches like embossing all the more important. The Chazen acquired this series, printed in 1789, just last year, and it's a terrific addition to an already strong collection of Japanese prints.

The majority of the other prints in the show come from the E.B. Van Vleck Collection, a grouping of about 3,800 prints donated to the museum in the 1980s. (E.B. Van Vleck, who died in the 1940s, was a UW mathematician and avid art collector.) In keeping with the show's aquatic theme, subjects like fishing, seaweed gathering, bustling fish markets and picturesque beaches figure prominently.

I was especially drawn to a series of 10 fish subjects done by Utagawa Hiroshige between 1830 and 1835. These color woodcuts pair finely detailed sea creatures with plant life, such as in Yellowtail, Blowfish and a Plum Branch. Hiroshige captures the distinctive features of each species, mirroring the beauty of the natural world with his own refined design sense.

Yet not everything in this show is realistic or minimalistic. Sometimes things are gloriously larger than life, such as in Utagawa Kuniyoshi's dynamic 1853 color woodcut Picture of Tamatori Hime at the Palace of the Dragon King. This large-scale print hints at the importance of the sea in Japanese lore. The artist depicts a dramatic sea battle sparked by a woman's theft of a giant pearl. Using relatively bright colors and swirling, energetic lines, the artist shows a sea dragon and his posse of helpers pursuing the woman. Wielding swords and sporting kimonos, a motley battalion of fish, turtles and octopi are on the warpath. Every inch of the print is crammed with detail, making this an interesting counterpoint to the more understated works on view.

In other words, Gifts of the Ebb Tide is a chance to appreciate one of the high points of the Chazen's collection.

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