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Irises and Grasshopper

Irises and Grasshopper
Woodblock print, from an untitled series known as 'Large Flowers', signed Saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo), circa 1833-34
Horizontal oban: 9 5/8 x 14 3/8 in. (24.4 x 36.5 cm.)
Henri Vever (1854-1943), Paris, sold Sotheby's, London, Highly Important Japanese Prints, Illustrated Books and Drawings from the Henri Vever Collection: Part II, 26 March 1975, lot 290
Huguette Berès (1914-1999), sold Sotheby’s, Paris, Collection Huguette Berès: Estampes, Dessins et Livres Illustrés Japonais (Première Vente), 27 November 2002, lot 98.
Jack Hillier, Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Vever Collection, vol. 3 (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet; New York: Rizzoli, 1976), no. 699, p. 709.

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Takaaki Murakami (村上高明)
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Lot Essay

An agile green and orange grasshopper is making its way down the slender edge of the central leaf of a stand of irises in a blue pond. The younger shoots are light green and the blossoms pale and darker purple with inner licks of yellow. The vertical fold and residue of adhesion on the verso suggest the print once was mounted in an album in the tradition of The Mustard Seed Garden and other popular bird-and-flower books. It is widely remarked that ukiyo-e of irises, this Hokusai image in particular, were the inspiration for Van Gogh’s Irises in the Getty Museum.
Those details are effectively irrelevant to the point of Hokusai’s drawing: the pulse of nature. The flowers have a mutual rhythm, arching and twisting as if in a dance. We see them in close-up at eye-level––in their realm, not looking down from ours. Each of the ten recorded images in the untitled set have this unusual perspective and vibration.
Henri Vever is as renowned as a connoisseur of Japanese art as he is as a designer of art-nouveau jewellery. His red seal on Japanese prints, as here, is a hallmark of quality. Print collectors are envious of the glorious conditions Vever enjoyed in the decades around 1900, when thousands and thousands of ukiyo-e were circulating in Europe. Vever had the eye and connections to concentrate on fineness of impression, color and rarity, aspects of superior ukiyo-e that were lost on many of his contemporaries who admired the softness and quaintness they saw in faded and worn prints. After Vever died in 1943, his collection went dormant until 1972, when his heirs surprised Sotheby’s, London with the dispersal of the Vever Collection. The first of the four landmark print auctions came in 1974; the second in 1975; the third in 1977; and the final in 1997. H. George Mann in his memoir Sixty Years with Japanese Prints (privately published, 2021) describes the frisson that went through the Japanese print world when the Vever Collection reached the market. He recalls the buzz of anticipation and the dejection of the under-bidder as lot after desired lot went to someone else:
It took a while for me to recover from the Vever sale. The week or so in London went from high to low and back again. The first viewing of the prints at Sotheby’s was exhilarating...But entering the famed auction room with the venerable green felt-covered table where the leading dealers and collectors sat during the auction and where, for many years, objects were passed from person to person during the sale was a new high. I believe there is still a plaque on the wall dedicated to the “underbidder,” the unsung hero of every auction of every object who drives the price up to its winning bid. (p. 59)
In 1979, however, Mann was gratified to add to his collection Morning Glories and Tree Frog, another of the designs in the Hokusai “Large Flowers” set that also had belonged to Henri Vever (Vever II, lot 287).
For an insider account of the Vever auctions, one now can hear from the auctioneer in Neil Davey’s “Behind the Gavel: The Auctioneer’s Personal Viewpoint,” Impressions, The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America, 42 (2021): 123–29. “We were thrilled,” he writes, “by the quantity and range of objects. Here was a collection of classic early-twentieth-century French taste. . . . My own excitement was nothing compared to the delight that was gripping Jack Hillier [specialist who catalogued the Vever prints], as we unpacked supreme after supreme print, great rarities and some unrecorded images.”

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