Collector Spotlight: Elias Martin

René Romero Schuler

Going into my meeting with collector Elias Martin, I had a very narrow scope of what I might see and learn. I must say that after our meeting, I have been rendered…well, I can’t say speechless since I am writing this, but you know what I mean.

As the Director of Exhibitions at Floating World Gallery, Elias Martin has welcomed me into his spectacular apartment on Chicago’s north side. He possesses both a formidable knowledge of Asian art, and an incredible collection of Japanese prints and woodcuts. His passion for Asian art was sparked at an early age, as his mother collected Chinese blue and white porcelain ceramics. By college, he began purchasing items for a collection that has now become one of the most comprehensive collections of early 20th century Japanese prints in existence today. Elias’ love for this art was palpable, as he walked us through, piece by piece, of his meticulously archived masterpieces.

Upon our arrival, we were asked to remove our shoes (“Japanese-style”) by Elias. He then welcomed us into his wonderfully tranquil and exquisitely decorated apartment. We were immediately greeted with a beautiful scroll from the Ukiyo-e Period, and a contemporary ceramic piece that was methodically placed atop shiny granite tile for reflection. Neutral tones dominate the space and Elias has taken great care to balance design and texture with the works in his apartment collection. Together, art and decor have elements of wood, paper, ceramic, canvas, silk, cotton and tile – all of which are deliberately arranged throughout the space.

Elias discussed his pieces from the era known as the Sosaku Hanga Period, which dates from about 1904-1960. He explained that he acquired many of the monoprints directly from the artists’ families in Japan. Some of the prints are from an edition of one, and in many cases, extremely rare. The majority of his collection consists of woodblock prints, with each color or layer created by an individually carved “key block”. During the Ukiyo-e Period, the artisans who created these types of prints were generally hired by a publisher to create the image. The publisher would often have been hired by shop owners (among other merchant types) to advertise kimonos or other wares. Once completed, the publisher would, in turn, take this prototype to a printer who would make a limited edition of prints.

This era gave way to the Shin Hanga Movement, which is best understood as a time in Japanese print production where “art for art’s sake” was a driving force. It is worth noting that the iconography and images of this period were typically created for Western consumption or those who craved a more nostalgic view of Japan. The scenes were idealistic landscapes and geishas, and the like.

The Sosaku Hanga Movement, pioneered by a man named Yamamoto Kinai, was a completely radical time in Japanese art. The artists of this period were showing great interest in the international art scene. They were leaving to study abroad, and bringing that knowledge back to Japan, however they generally still hung on to their traditional art-making principles. Art of this period contained emotion and feelings, which, in a society that has no real egocentricism, was an astounding concept.

Japanese art was also influencing the rest of the world. Manet, father of French Impressionism, famously credited Japanese prints for the start of Impressionism. I can honestly say, too, that what I have seen and learned on this visit will have a great influence on me as well!

For more information please check back with Chicago Art Collector Magazine for Elias Martin’s in-depth series on collecting Japanese prints.

If you are interested in learning more about Japanese Prints – Floating World Gallery will feature a presentation on July 31, 2010.