Woodcut Prints by Helen Hyde and Bertha Lum Demonstrate Influence of Traditions in Japan and China on Western Art


Exhibition of Woodcut Prints by Helen Hyde and Bertha Lum

Highlights Zimmerli’s Holdings of Western Art Influenced by Japan and China


New Brunswick, NJ – The historic re-establishment of trade between Japan and Western nations in 1853 also greatly influenced art and culture throughout the second half of the 19th century. Exhibitions at museums and world’s fairs introduced Asian artists and traditions in North America and Europe, where artists enthusiastically embraced subjects, compositions, and materials they rarely – if ever – had seen before. The Zimmerli Art Museum’s new exhibition “Infinite Opportunities Offered in Color”:  Prints by Helen Hyde and Bertha Lum, on view through July 31, features 35 works by two American artists who, in turn, disseminated these artistic developments to audiences back home. Both artists spent considerable time living abroad in Asia and recognized the unique artistic possibilities for representing traditional aspects of life in an area of the world that was rapidly modernizing. They mastered complex color printing techniques and depicted aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture that essentially had been absent in the West. Because these artists generally are presented in survey exhibitions, this is a rare opportunity to view a significant group of works by either artist. “Infinite Opportunities Offered in Color” also complements other works on view from the Zimmerli’s permanent collection, including examples of the Japonisme movement and a gallery that commemorates Rutgers’ historic relationship with Japan. 


“Helen Hyde and Bertha Lum gained recognition in their lifetimes as major contributors to color printmaking, which was still considered somewhat avant-garde in the early 20th century,” notes Christine Giviskos, the Zimmerli’s Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art. “However, because they were women who went to great lengths to travel to Japan, they often are remembered primarily for their intrepid travels, rather than for their ambition, talent, and skill. They learned every aspect of traditional ukiyo-e color woodcuts and their innovative prints stimulated a renaissance of woodcut printmaking.  Their careers can be seen as prototypes for trends in today’s global art world and market.”


Helen Hyde (1868-1919) became one of the best known and most successful printmakers of the early 20th century. She grew up in California and, at age 12, first took art lessons with a neighbor. She later attended the California School of Design, followed by study in Berlin and Paris. Her interest in Japanese art developed while there from an introduction to the Japonisme movement and the paintings of Mary Cassatt. She returned to San Francisco in the early 1890s and began to sketch the women and children who lived in Chinatown. The 1897 color etching Hide and Seek – showing two children playing the game – demonstrates her mastery of not only the medium, but also documenting traditional Japanese clothing from the era. A year later, she achieved her first commercial success when she exhibited these early prints in New York. Such scenes established Hyde’s reputation as a top printmaker and today represent a rare group of images of the people who lived and worked in that neighborhood before the city’s devastating 1906 earthquake.


Hyde moved to Japan in 1899, where she completely immersed herself in the culture and maintained her primary residence for the next 14 years. In 1906, she wrote, “Japan was a gem, a revelation . . . coming into Japanese life, I was overjoyed by the infinite opportunities offered in color.” Hyde’s sketchbook, which spans her entire career abroad, is on view, likely for the first time. It includes pencil drawings of sites near her home in Nikko, watercolor studies, and written notes, providing a glimpse into her working process and how much preparation went into one of her compositions. A chalk and graphite sketch of Baby Talk from the book is accompanied by a completed 1908 color woodcut, for which Hyde won awards in both Europe and the United States. One of her largest color woodcuts, Hyde’s ambitious portrayal of a Japanese mother playing with her baby is a rigorously organized composition, harmonizing the figural group within its decorative setting. The print’s oval format enhances the volume of the figures, which might have seemed flat against the painted screen in a rectangular composition.


Bertha Lum (1869-1954) grew up in Iowa and, in addition to studying stained glass and illustration, attended the Art Institute of Chicago and discovered Japanese color prints in Arthur Wesley Dow’s influential textbook Composition. In 1903, Lum spent her honeymoon in Japan, where she purchased woodcutting tools that she began to use upon her return home to Minneapolis. She made several more trips there, developing an interest in depicting Asian legends and folklore that had no previous visual tradition. Among them is Lum’s 1912 color woodcut Tanabata, a luminous print that presents the mythical subject of the separated lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi. The two were only permitted to meet once each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month (“Tanabata” translates as “evening of the seventh”). Lum selected one of the most picturesque moments of the story: a flock of magpies formed a bridge with their wings so that Orihime could cross the river to meet her beloved. With its many shades of blue and radiant light, this is one of Lum’s most technically accomplished prints. From 1922 until her death, Lum also lived for long periods in Peking (now Beijing). She made prints according to traditional Chinese techniques, including raised line woodcuts: after a design was carved on a woodblock, she pressed the block into a damp piece of paper, which became embossed with the lines of the design, and then applied watercolor to the areas bound by the raised lines of the design. Promenade of Marionettes (1927) is an example of this traditional printmaking technique, which enhances figural dimensionality and surface animation created by the raised lines. It also is one of several compositions by Lum depicting Chinese puppet performances.


Lum was among the artists (including Helen Hyde) who participated in an important exhibition of contemporary color prints at San Francisco’s world’s fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. For Lum, who had worked in near-isolation, the exhibition provided her first national exposure. She also achieved notoriety with a number of her works reproduced in well-known publications. One of the artist's best known compositions, the 1916 color woodcut Land of the Bluebird appeared in the art journals American Magazine of Art in 1917 and International Studio in 1921. Depicting tree fairies that observe the flight of two birds, the print is an example of her extensive study of Japanese representations of nature and animals. Lum also had the opportunity to design the cover for the July 1933 issue of Fortune Magazine, which commissioned various artists and illustrators to do so throughout the decade. Here, Lum reworked her 1924 color woodcut The Spinner, emphasizing linear details on the loom, the woman’s kimono, and other compositional elements.


Providing context of the era in which Hyde and Lum worked, the Zimmerli Art Museum houses a renowned collection of key artists and designers associated with the Japonisme movement. Coined in 1872, the French term has come to refer to the influence of Japanese art and aesthetics on European and American art. Such artists as Félix Buhot, Henri Guérard, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, and Henri Rivière (including a rare group of his photographs), as well as Raoul Dufy, Sonia Delaunay, and Fernand Léger are represented by their works on paper. Watercolors by Eugène Delacroix, Paul Signac, and J.M.W. Turner, and ceramics by Joseph-Théodore Deck, Emile Gallé (a founder of the Art Nouveau style), and the Bordeaux-based manufactory, J. Vieillard & Cie demonstrate the influence across a range of mediums. In addition, the collection includes a selection of ukiyo-e color woodcut prints.


With Rutgers’ 250th anniversary underway, the Zimmerli also invites the public to visit the Kusakabe-Griffis Room, which celebrates the university’s historical relationship with Japan. Open on weekends, the gallery commemorates Rutgers’ international significance during the Meiji period (1868-1912), considered the beginning of the modern era in Japan, when one of the first Japanese citizens to study at and graduate from an American college attended the university. From 1867 to 1870, Kusakabe Tarô, a samurai from Fukui, attended Rutgers College. He earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and was the first Japanese student admitted to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. (He died of tuberculosis a few weeks before commencement and is buried in the Willow Grove Cemetery in New Brunswick.) His tutor and fellow student William Griffis then traveled to Japan in 1870, eventually becoming a professor at Rutgers, as well as an early Japan expert. Today, the William Eliot Griffis Collection, in the Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University Libraries, is a unique scholarly resource that includes photos, manuscripts, and other items. It documents the history of the first Japanese students who came to the United States to study at the time of Meiji Restoration (1868). In addition, New Brunswick maintains relationships with Fukui and Tsuruoka, Japan, through the Sister Cities International program.


In the course of building its renowned collection of European and American Japonisme, the Zimmerli also added works by Japanese and Japanese-American artists ranging from manga by Hokusai and Meiji-era (1868–1912) photographs to modern color woodcut prints. Currently, the Kusakabe-Griffis Room features an exhibition of 20 prints and drawings by artists including Ansei Uchima, Minoru Kawabata, Kenji Nakahashi, and Yasu Mori made during the 1950s and 1960s.  Working primarily in abstract idioms and using a variety of media, the artists acknowledged and reinterpreted Japanese artistic traditions. While certain of these prints and artists have been featured in past exhibitions including Asian Traditions/Modern Expressions (1997), From Here to the Horizon (2007), and Blocks of Color (2009), the selection provides a larger presentation of this lesser known aspect of the Zimmerli’s extensive print collection.


“Infinite Opportunities Offered in Color” is organized by Christine Giviskos, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art.



The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.



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The Zimmerli’s operations, exhibitions, and programs are funded in part by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, among others. Additional support comes from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Estate of Victoria J. Mastrobuono; and donors, members, and friends of the museum.



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