New exhibit shows works of 1889 Oberlin grad Mary A. Ainsworth

Allen-JapaneseOBERLIN — The “Floating World” is landing Tuesday at the Oberlin College Allen Memorial Art Museum.

“Life in Prints: Mary A. Ainsworth and the Floating World” marks the first time in almost 30 years that museum visitors will attend an exhibit featuring Japanese woodblock prints exclusively from Ainsworth’s collection.

Ainsworth graduated from Oberlin in 1889 and traveled alone to Japan in 1906. While visiting, she began collecting prints depicting the “Floating World,” or Japanese popular culture and entertainment.

“It’s an extraordinary collection that formed the basis for our Asian art collection,” said Megan Harding, publications, membership and media manager at the museum.

Kevin Greenwood, curator of the exhibit and Joan L. Danforth assistant curator of Asian art, said the term “Floating World” is a historic joke referencing the quickly-changing fashions and interests of the Japanese merchant class.

“(Floating) was originally a Buddhist term for the impermanence of life,” said Greenwood. “The (term was) adopted for the world of entertainment. What’s hot today is not hot tomorrow.”

The prints depict a variety of figures including geishas, sumo wrestlers, teahouse servers and kabuki actors. According to Greenwood, this world of entertainment grew out of Japan’s changing economy and the rise of the merchant class.

“The merchant class was not allowed to spend its money on luxury items, but they could spend money on entertainment,” Greenwood said.

By the 1930s the Ainsworth collection included more than 1,500 works, with many pieces from the 1603 to 1868 Edo period as well as prints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to Harding, the collection is well known by scholars and one of the best collections of Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period.

The collection was donated to the Oberlin museum after Ainsworth’s death in 1950.

The exhibit follows the history of Japanese woodblock prints from early works dating to the 17th century to depictions of women and actors to the rise in popularity of landscape prints in the early 19th century.

The most modern part of the collection contains pieces showing the industrialization of Japan from 1868 to 1920.

“The country began to industrialize and modernize at a very rapid rate,” Greenwood said. “There are some beautiful, very rare prints from that period in the show.”

Greenwood hopes the exhibit will expose visitors to Japanese prints as well as provide context for more modern forms of Japanese art.

“For younger people who have grown up with Manga and anime, they’re going to see the origins of this,” he said.

Classes from Oberlin College, including The Art of Japanese Prints taught by Bonnie Cheng, will visit the exhibit to supplement coursework.

In addition creating an educational exhibit, Greenwood included playful elements and highlighted “Woman Throwing a Snowball at A Girl Reading a Love Letter” by Suzuki Harunobu as one of his favorite prints.

The piece depicts a woman hiding behind a wall prepared to toss a snowball at a seated girl.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful print … (and) it’s really funny,” he said.

The exhibit will be open until June 7.

Contact Elizabeth Dobbins at 329-7155 or

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New exhibit shows works of 1889 Oberlin grad Mary A. Ainsworth
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