Bertha Lum (1869-1954)

Bertha Lum was born in Iowa sixteen years after Perry's entry into Tokyo. Lum studied design and illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago. She may have been introduced to Oriental art through the writings of Arthur Wesley Dow (who was the first to incorporate Japanese artistic elements into American art education). Additionally, art magazines were publishing articles reflecting the Japonisme vogue.

Her early works are highly sophisticated in the format and style of ukiyo-e artists. Around 1908 she began a difficult technique that almost entirely dispensed with the key block. Instead, she would outline figures which allowed the background to dissolve into fog or mist. In 1912, she was the only foreign woodcut artist in Tokyo exhibition which caused quite a stir, that is that the best contemporary prints made in the Japanese manner were made by an American woman. The Japanese were making reproductions of old prints but she was using woodcuts to express modern ideas. And her many of her images were of everyday life.

During her China years (1922-1929), Lum experimented with raising the design outlines slight above the paper. Damp paper pressed over the raised lines of the block took on an embossed quality. Her prints here include many more scenes of specific locations, mostly those visited by foreigners. The twenties were years of artistic and financial success. As a result of the American depression, her print sales plummeted and difficult times followed. In 1936, she published Gangplanks to the East recounting her travel experiences. She continued to travel back and forth between America and the Far East although she spent the war years in Washington.

She returned to Peking in 1948, but with Mao Tse-Tueng's ascendancy the times were very difficult. Her son-in-law was executed in 195. Finally Lum left China for the last time in 1953, dying at 84 the following year. During her lifetime she made 10 trips to the Far East usually spending several years each living there.

Abstracted from Bertha Lum, Mary Evans O'keefe Gravalos and Carol Pulin, Smithsonian Press, 1990


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