Rare Japanese woodblock prints on display in Poland

940123 BERNARD OSSER –

Polish-French art enthusiast Jerzy Leskowicz is obsessed with first-edition Japanese woodblock prints, and Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic 19th-century “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” is only one of many in his collection.
Part of that collection goes on display this weekend in Poland at the National Museum in Warsaw, where visitors can also admire Utagawa Hiroshige’s “A Sudden Shower over the Ohashi Bridge and Atake”, a favourite of celebrated 19th Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.
“Virtually all of Van Gogh’s landscapes were inspired by Hiroshige,” said the 71-year-old Leskowicz, who sports a white moustache and made his fortune in real-estate.
“Van Gogh copied Japanese prints and he even tried to reproduce the signatures on them,” added exhibition curator Anna Katarzyna Maleszko, as Japanese flute music played in the background.
Leskowicz is particularly proud of owning first edition prints of the entire series “The Sixty-Nine Stations of Kisokaido” by Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen.
The series includes stunning landscapes and scenes of everyday life featuring merchants, peasants and noblemen from 19th-century Japan.
“This is an extraordinary series where you have the first signatures and all the first editions of these prints,” Leskowicz told AFP.
“It was presented in Japan in the early 2000s and then in the United States, and it is the first time it has been presented in Europe,” he said, adding that German publisher Taschen will soon publish an art book on the series.

BETWEEN EDO & KYOTO
Leskowicz’s collection numbers some 2,000 items, of which more than half are first-edition prints.
The polychrome “pictures of the floating world,” or “ukiyo-e” in Japanese, were the pop art of their day, produced for the general public and depicting beautiful women and kabuki theatre actors but also nature and scenes from Japanese history.
Once they made their way to Europe near the end of the 19th century, the traditional prints featuring solid colours and novel use of perspective and composition took the continent by storm and had a huge influence on Western art.
Around 300 prints from Leskowicz’s collection, shown to the public for the first time, will be on display in Warsaw until May 7.
“The exhibition ‘Journey to Edo’ is put together in such a way that visitors can travel between Edo, today’s Tokyo, and Kyoto while admiring the landscapes and observing the people,” explained Maleszko.
“All that is to capture the spirit of ancient Japan.”
Leskowicz fell into collecting as a child. His father Aleksander was a well-known antiquarian book collector in Poland before World War II.
The collection was lost during the turmoil of the war and it is only recently that the younger Leskowicz began to rebuild it bit by bit to restore his father’s legacy.
“When I was five, six years old, my father would sit me on his knee and show me his manuscripts and rare books and tell me stories,” said Leskowicz.
“I was forced to listen, even though I would have preferred to play soccer or war. But certain things seeped into my head anyway,” he added with a smile.
Later he began collecting foreign stamps.
“That enabled me to travel. I was living in Poland, a country where you didn’t have the possibility to travel!”
He emigrated to France in the early 1970s and studied architecture before enjoying great success in the real-estate business. Then came the Japanese prints.
“Across the street from my office in Paris, there was a small Asian antique shop. I loved spending time there talking and looking,” he said.
“Japanese prints are addictive. They take you on a journey. Everything involved is fascinating: the history, the culture, the poetry.”
To this day he remains frustrated by the first print he ever bought, which turned out to be of mediocre quality. Since then he has only been interested in first editions.

TEAM EFFORT
Each print is a collective effort by several artisans, says Leskowicz: “The first is the artist, the second is the carver who makes the woodblock and the third, very important, is the printer who applies the paint by hand to several woodblocks.”
“For the first prints, the artist is often there to supervise the process,” he adds.
Shugo Asano, a Japanese specialist in the field of ukiyo-e painting and woodblock prints and a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, says his “eyes lit up” at the sight of the collection on display in Warsaw.
“I am full of awe and impressed that Mr. Leskowicz managed to assemble so many rare items of such high quality,” Asano said.
This is only the beginning, added Leskowicz: “Once you start, it’s very hard to stop.” — AFP