Brilliant, erudite, secretive, difficult, antisocial, contemptuous, impossible to know: These are the leitmotif terms that emerge from informal descriptions of Richard Lane by his contemporaries.“He was a very bizarre person and perhaps his own worst enemy,” recalls Manhattan gallery owner Joan Mirviss, “but as a scholar he was nearly unrivaled.” Scott Johnson, a Japanese art expert who teaches at Osaka’s Kansai University, provides a humanizing perspective: “Dick Lane resisted making personal friendships, but he could also be tireless in helping younger scholars. Now, looking through his collection—its depth, its unexpected strengths—I feel as if I’ve come to know him better. Now I’d love to sit down and have a chat with him.”
Lane was, by all accounts, not the chatty type; he gave no interviews and wrote no self-revealing memoirs. Nonetheless, the basic biographical facts are clear. Born in Kissimmee, Fla., Lane served as a Marine in Japan during World War II. He subsequently studied Japanese and Chinese literature at the University of Hawai‘i (B.A.) and Columbia (M.A., Ph.D.), then settled permanently in Japan in 1957. In 1960 Lane married Chiyeko Okawa, a medical doctor. A wedding photograph shows the couple in a sweetly candid moment, exchanging a playful private smile. Strong-featured and lantern-awed, Lane looks more like Central Casting’s idea of a good-natured GI than an aloof, contemptuous curmudgeon.
Unlike most world-class scholars, Lane was never affiliated with any university; he supported himself as an art dealer and by writing about Edo Period woodblock prints and illustrated books, among other topics. His best-known work is the hefty, oft-cited Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print, an encyclopedic survey of ukiyo-e. Lane’s prose style is literate, polished and occasionally mischievous, especially when he’s discussing shunga—the witty, startlingly explicit erotic prints that were one of his favorite areas of scholarship and collecting. In print he doesn’t seem standoffish at all.