Prices Sell Japanese Paintings Coveted by LACMA
|Ito Jakuchu (?), Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants (one of two six-fold screens)|
The backstory: In 1980 the Prices donated $5 million towards construction of the Bruce Goff-designed Japanese Pavilion and pledged their collection of approximately 160 Edo-period paintings as future gifts to LACMA. A promised gift is not necessarily binding, but reportage indicated that this agreement was formalized in a contract. The Prices retained a life estate in the collection, and (as they continued to collect actively) their post-1980 acquisitions were excluded from the intended gift. At its 1988 opening, the Japanese Pavilion showed rotations of works from the Price collection, with no distinction between promised and not-promised works (naturally it was hoped that the entire collection might one day come to the museum). LACMA published a book on the Price collection, Masterpieces from the Shin'enkan Collection: Japanese Painting from the Edo Period. The Jakuchu Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants, which the Prices purchased in 1985, was featured on the cover.
Within a few years the Prices had a falling out with LACMA. Joe Price felt that the paintings needed brighter light than LACMA's conservation-minded curators supplied. He also objected to the museum creating office space in the basement of the Pavilion. In 1993 the Prices sued LACMA for a laundry list of grievances, demanding return of the works that weren't promised gifts. LACMA made some concessions, and the lawsuit was dropped.
The loans of Price works stopped however. Former LACMA director Graham Beal made overtures to the Prices, to no avail. His successor Michael Govan brokered a detente, and the Price collection was again shown at LACMA in a large 2008 exhibition. It included a lighting system that varied in brightness, "compressing a day's sunlight into a few minutes." Govan reasserted hope that the more recently acquired Price works would also be donated to the museum one day: "It is essential that more of the collection stay here."
A few years later the Prices had become estranged yet again. They floated the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery as a possible home for the works not already committed to LACMA. Joe Price said that any museum that wanted the collection would have to hire one of their daughters as curator: "She comes with the art."
|Also among the Price works sold to the Idemitsu Museum: Maruyama Okyo (attributed to), Tiger, 1785; Sakai Hoitsu, September and October from a set of Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months|
|Ito Jakuchu, Rooster, Hen, and Hydrangeas. Price Collection|
Joe Price was ahead of the curve in appreciating middle- and late-Edo painting. He began collecting actively in the mid 1960s, when such art was available and relatively inexpensive. Several exhibitions in Japan in the 1970s spurred interest in Jakuchu and Edo painting. In the 1990s Takashi Murakami declared Jakuchu to be a Superflat artist before the fact. As appreciation of Edo painting burgeoned, prices caught up with the Prices.
Thus many of the most important works in the Price collection were acquired before 1980. This includes Nagasawa Rosetsu's Bull and Elephant screens; Sakai Hoitsu's The Thirty-Six Poets on a Field of Flowers and Grasses; Suzuki Kiitsu's Paulownia and Maple.
The technique is so unlike Jakuchu's, or anyone else's, usual work that an attribution solely on stylistic grounds is problematic. The catalog to LACMA's 1989 Jakuchu show argued that the Price screens were not autograph and were more likely to date from the 19th century (Jakuchu died in 1800). The screens are nonetheless famous enough to have inspired a digital piece by teamLab that was shown in last year's "Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art." Takashi Murakami's 82-foot-long painting at the Broad, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow, includes a version of Jakuchu's white elephant.
The Price works sold to the Idemitsu Museum are currently scheduled to debut in Tokyo Sep. 19 through Dec. 20, 2020.