Thursday, July 30, 2015

Eliza Draper Gardiner: Japan Comes To Rhode Island


A post about Eliza Draper Gardiner  (1871-1955) on this particular blog might strike some people as strange.  Indeed, as far as I know, Gardiner, who was born in Providence, Rhode Island, never traveled to Japan or, indeed, anywhere in Asia.  She studied art at the Friends School in Providence, and enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, from which she graduated in 1897.  After further studies in Europe, she became a pupil of the painter Charles H. Woodbury, who likely introduced her to etching.  True, she was influenced  by the color woodblock prints of Arthur Wesley Dow, and at least one of her prints (“Landscape Study, Three Pines”) was based on an exercise from Dow’s Composition book.  She probably was influenced by Japanese woodblock prints just as Dow was, but I’m not aware of any hard evidence that she ever made a study of them beyond what she gleaned from Dow’s writings.   Peter Hastings Falk has also cited the prints of Sir William Nicholson as another influence and Nicholson, as it turns out, also was an influence on both Emil Orlik and my favorite Japanese print designer, Hashiguchi Goyo.


Eliza Draper Gardiner (1892)

Beginning in 1908, Gardiner joined the faculty at  the Rhode Island School of Design where, over the years, she taught woodcut, watercolor, and drawing.  Gardiner seldom, if ever, dated her prints, but her earliest prints seem to start appearing around 1914.  In 1916, she began her association with the Provincetown printmakers, although she never used their white-line method and instead used a technique following in the Japanese tradition.  Her work was shown in a landmark exhibition of color prints at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1919 and at a show at the Art Institute of Chicago that same year.  Between 1920 and 1938 she was a regular contributor to the Print Makers Society of California’s annual International Print Makers Exhibitions in Los Angeles.  She continued teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design until 1939.  Her favorite subject was children at play in beaches, parks, and meadows. 

 Boy with Crabnet
(woodblock print)

 Water Wings
(woodblock print)

One of Gardiner’s last woodblock prints (perhaps even her final print) is this monochromatic Buddha study featuring one of her trademark little girls seated to the left of the sculpture and issued in an edition of 50.  It was exhibited at the 18th Annual International Print Makers Exhibition in Los Angeles in March 1937, where it was included in the Society's "Best Fifty Prints of the Year."  It was also exhibited at the Newport Art Museum's 27th American Annual Exhibition in 1938.  Why, after a life spent mainly in Rhode Island depicting children at play at local venues, would Gardiner would choose to depict this particular exotic subject?

Buddha (1937) 
Personal Collection
(woodblock print)

It turns out that there is a rather simple explanation.  In 1936, the Rhode Island School of Design purchased a large wooden sculpture of the Buddha Mahavairocana (Dainichi Nyorai), the supreme Buddha of Mahayana Buddhism as taught by the Shingon sect, from the Japanese art dealer Yamanaka & Co., Inc. of New York City.  The largest wooden Japanese sculpture in the United States (294.6 H x 212.1 W x 165.1 D), it was constructed from eleven hollowed and carved pieces of cryptomeria wood at the end of the Heian Period in the 12th Century (c. 1150-1185).  It was the principal image of Rokuon-ji, a Shingon sub-temple in Hyogo Prefecture, along Japan’s Inland Sea.  Legend has it that the temple was destroyed by fire hundreds of years ago, but that it was stored in a nearby farmhouse until it was brought to the U.S. by Yamanaka in 1933.

Buddha Mahavairocana, 
Rhode Island School of Design

The Dainichi Nyorai represents the transcendent Buddha from whom all other buddhas and all aspects of the universe emanate.  The sculpture shows him as an Indian prince in a pose similar to traditional painted depictions, in which he sat at the center of a mandala (cosmic diagram) surrounded by other buddhas and attendants.  This meditating Dainichi would have been the focus of worship in the temple hall where visitors prayed, made offerings, lit incense sticks, chanted, and performed rituals particular to the Shingon sect. The symbolic dhyana mudra gesture of the Buddha’s hands, in which the tips of his thumbs touch, indicates pure meditation and the attainment of spiritual perfection.

 Buddha Mahavairocana, 
Rhode Island School of Design

This sculpture would, therefore, literally have been “big” news to anyone working at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1936, including Gardiner.  However, being carved out of Japanese wood rather than from stone, this sculpture might have had particular resonance to Gardiner, who had spent much of her own life carving wood for prints and teaching that technique to her students.  It’s almost as if, at the end of her woodblock printing career, Gardiner is paying symbolic homage to the Japanese for developing an art form that, either directly or indirectly, largely shaped her own artistic path.

 Buddha Mahavairocana, 
Rhode Island School of Design

Two preliminary charcoal studies for Gardiner’s print have survived which, along with the print itself, I was able to buy from The Old Print Shop in New York City.  Both are larger than the actual print.  In the first, the girl is standing in front of the sculpture.  In the second, two of the three composite sketches show the girl seated to the left of the sculpture, as in the final print, and therefore presumably were executed after the first drawing, even though the sculpture is more freely rendered.  In both drawings, the Buddha’s robe, as in the sculpture itself, drapes down from his left shoulder, yet Gardiner inexplicably shows the robe draping down from the Buddha’s right shoulder in the print.  At first I thought this might have been because she used some subsequent drawing to cut the block, so that the sculpture would necessarily appear in reverse in the final print.  But if that were the case, then shouldn’t the girl also appear on the other side of the sculpture in the print?  I can only surmise that, while the Buddha Mahavairocana sculpture was clearly the specific inspiration for her print, it was not intended to be a realistic, literal rendering of that particular sculpture.

Charcoal Study #1 for Buddha print (c. 1936-1937) 
Personal Collection

Charcoal Study #2 for Buddha print (c. 1936-1937)
Personal Collection

Gardiner was certainly not the first Western printmaker to depict a Buddha statue in prints.  For comparison, here are some earlier examples by some other noted etchers and printmakers:


 Kamakura (1916) by Charles W. Bartlett
(woodblock print)

The Daibusu, Kamakura (1919) by Elizabeth Keith
(woodblock print)

White Buddha, Korea (1925) by Elizabeth Keith
Personal Collection
(woodblock print)

Buddha - Amida (1923) by Bertha Jacques
Courtesy of Joyce Williams Antique Prints & Maps
(etching)

Note:  The Jaques Buddha image comes from Joyce Williams’ website, where it is called “Budda-Serenity” and is apparently misdescribed as a 1924 woodblock print.  I'm not aware that Jaques made any commercial woodblock prints, and only a "Buddha - Amida" etching appears in Czestochowski's list of Jacques etchings at the back of his James Swann catalog raisonne.

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