Drum Tower, Nikko
with artist's rectangular monogram LMM at lower right, title and signed in pencil on the bottom margin, Drum Tower- Nikko, By LiLiLiAN MiLLER; self carved and very likely self-printed by the artist while in Japan, ca. 1930s
15 5/8 by 9 1/2 in., 39.7 by 24.1 cm
Lilian May Miller was born in Japan in 1895. Her father, Ransford, worked at the American embassy in Tokyo and her mother, Lilly, taught English at the Christian mission. In 1904, at the age of nine, Lilian enrolled in the atelier of Kano Tomonobu (1843-1912), one of the last Kano school masters. Tomonobu was well-known in the tightly-knit community of expatriates: he gave private lessons to a number of foreign artists, including Emil Orlik, Helen Hyde, and briefly, Arthur Wesley Dow.
In 1907, she began lessons with a more progressive artist, Shimada Bokusen (1867-1941), who bestowed her with the go (art name) of Gyokka (Jeweled Flower). Lilians unique training in Japanese painting came to a halt when her father was transferred back to Washington in 1909, and thus, her formative teenaged and young adult years would be spent in the States, where she attended Vassar College in New York. Following her graduation in 1917, Miller returned to Asia; her father had taken a temporary position in Japan, and the following year he became the Consulate General in Seoul, Korea. Miller visited Korea and fell in love with it, but returned to Japan to live on her own with the help of a stipend from her parents.
By 1920 she was living as the tenant of the formidable Bertha Lum, and had turned to printmaking as a way of supplementing her income. It is presumably thanks to Lum that Miller began to work with the block carver Matsumoto (who had worked for Helen Hyde) and the printer Nishimura Kumakichi, upon whom Lum had come to rely on completely for her own print productions. Shortly thereafter there was a dramatic falling-out between the two artists; the exact cause is not known but it seemed to stem from some issues regarding artistic integrity. Interestingly, Miller also struggled with a relationship with Elizabeth Keith, who began as a friend but later developed into a rival (see Brown, Lilian Miller: An American Artist in Japan, in Impressions 27, 2006, for an untangling of these conflicts).
Millers early prints, published in 1919-1920, were certainly carved by Matsumoto and printed by Nishimura Kumakichi, but at some point along the way, she learned block-carving and printing herself. In 1927 to 1928, Miller began producing prints again during a period of convalescence with her parents in Seoul (financial ruin due to the 1923 Grant Kanto Earthquake was followed by a serious long illness). The prints from this period are somewhat more stylized than her earlier works; the simplified compositions would have facilitated her self-carved, self-printed efforts. This skill set her apart from the small circle of foreign print artists plying the market for nostalgic views of old Japan. Ironically, the one who was the most Japanese of them all, having been born and partially raised there, took the most Western approach- that of the individual artist controlling every aspect of production and thus achieving true creative independence.
Yokohama Museum of Art, ed., Eyes Towards Asia: Ukiyo-e Artists from Abroad (Ajiae no me gaikokujin no ukiyo-e shitachi), 1996, p. 129, no. 172
Kendall H. Brown, Between Two Worlds: The Life and Art of Lilian May Miller, 1998, p. 77, fig. 89
Kendall H. Brown, Lilian Miller: An American Artist in Japan, in Impressions 27, 2006, pp. 80-97, illus. fig. 9 and back cover
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