Poetic Painting

Art provides a new perspective on the rest of the world
Thursday, July 3, 2008 | 1:51 p.m. CDT; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU. He can be contacted

The last time I checked, it seemed as though we Columbians were in the process of trashing a pretty nice piece of real estate. But I’ve also observed the same pattern of rampant and reckless development, substituting franchises for farms and forests, taking place all across the country, so I no longer think it’s a uniquely local form of madness.

As American Poet Laureate, Archibald MacLeish wrote of the land practices that helped cause the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s: “It was all prices to them. They never looked at it; they never looked at the land.”


WHAT “The Poetry of Nature in Japanese Woodblock Prints” WHEN Through Aug. 24. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays WHERE Museum of Art and Archaeology, 1 Pickard Hall on Francis Quadrangle, MU ADMISSION Free INFORMATION Online at or call 882-3591

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Maybe it’s time we all looked at the land in new ways.

“The Poetry of Nature in Japanese Woodblock Prints” at the Museum of Art and Archaeology offers us a great opportunity to look at the natural world in a very different way. As landscape architect Ian McHarg wrote in his classic “Design with Nature,” “When you find a people who believe that (humans) and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes, these societies will be very different from ours, as will their towns, cities, and landscapes.”

Unlike American landscape painting of the 19th century that depicts the transcendent sweep of American history conquering a vast wilderness, the Japanese woodblock prints in this exhibition show us a very different way of looking and being in the world, a window into traditional Japanese culture. Like haiku poems, they are small in scale, contemplating with Buddhist equanimity the transitory nature of time, in which humans play their passing part in nature similar to the evanescent water and leaves. As one Japanese poet described a scene portrayed in the exhibition:

Grasses are misty,

The waters silent —

A tranquil evening.

The question for American culture about these woodblock prints is most likely: Who cares? Perhaps a better question to begin your consideration of this exhibition might be Who cared? because Japanese woodblock prints like those shown in the exhibition exerted a tremendous influence on Western art and culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The emphasis upon single moments in time (impressions?) depicted in the Japanese woodblock prints powerfully affected Claude Monet, who created a Japanese garden at his home in Giverny, and Impressionism. We can also see their influence in the theatrical posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swirling natural motifs of the Art Nouveau movement.

In particular, Japanese woodblock prints dramatically changed Frank Lloyd Wright’s view of nature. Wright was an avid collector who amassed more than 6,000 prints in his personal collection. As Julia Meech quoted Wright in her book “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan,” “I remember when I first met the Japanese prints. That art had a great influence on my thinking and feeling. ... I began to see nature in a totally different way.” Japanese woodblock prints were a big deal.

Unfortunately, our contemporary landscape indicates that we haven’t yet caught up to Wright’s vision of Our current development pattern is psychologically alienating and environmentally devastating, a lousy legacy to leave future generations. We need to restore at least a degree of reverence for the natural world and rethink our place in nature; art can actually serve us as a survival mechanism in this essential cultural reform.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his elegant poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” described his first visit to the Louvre. He concluded that after such a profound artistic experience, “You must change your life.” The exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints challenges us to do the same. m m m

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