In ART 425, while students gain expertise in Japanese prints, the Princeton University Art Museum gains six works!

May 10, 2024

ART 425 “The Japanese Print” marked the grand finale of Professor Andrew Watsky’s teaching career as he retires at the close of the spring semester. This seventh iteration of a course that has become a monument among A&A course offerings looked much the same this semester in key aspects as it has since Watsky began teaching it in 2008. Students know when they enroll in the course that they will participate in the purchase of at least one print for the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection—and they spend the first half of the course earning that privilege.  

"When you work with students with actual works of art it’s a totally different teaching experience." —Professor Andrew Watsky

Watsky, who is a scholar of 16th-century Japanese art history, considers the course an opportunity to stoke his own curiosity about a genre that lies outside his focus. He finds Japanese prints to be particularly approachable subjects both because of their visual appeal as well as the fact that there is so much scholarship on them in English, manifested in the 12-page bibliography Watsky provides his students. 

At the core of the course is the close relationship students are able to cultivate directly each week with works in the Museum’s collection with the help of Collections Associate Joelle Collins and works in Marquand Library's collection presented by Japanese Art Specialist Nicole Fabricand-Person. “Pedagogically, I’ve always found that when you work with students with actual works of art it’s a totally different teaching experience,” said Watsky.  His course begins with a close look at the chronological development and thematic issues of print-making in Japan during the Edo period (1615-1868), studying relevant works from the Museum’s collection each week, first on screen and then in life.  “There were almost always facets of prints that we couldn’t glean until we looked at the real objects,” said SPIA major Romit Kundagrami ’26. “Sometimes it would be subtle: slight dustings of mica, tiny lattice lines that seemed like block color before, or simply the richness of pigment. However, those differences were crucial to understanding the art more holistically and gaining insight into the mechanisms of creating a print in 18-19th-century Edo.” Along with learning about the genre itself, students become familiar with Museum holdings’ strengths and weaknesses.

Students line the end of a large white table, gazing a works

Marquand Library Japanese Art Specialist Nicole Fabricand-Person shows students works from the collection as Collections Associate Joelle Collins and Professor Andrew Watsky look on (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

 

For the latter half of the semester, students worked with a group of prints pre-selected by Watsky and Nancy and Peter Lee Curator of Asian Art Zoe Kwok on offer from Sebastian Izzard, LLC, New York. Dr. Izzard, one of the world’s leading Japanese print dealers, presented the group of 20 prints to the students for an initial session that narrowed the group to eight prints under consideration. Kundagrami recalls at the unveiling of contenders, “At a certain point, I don’t think a print went by without an exclamation of ‘wow…’ from the whole class.”

“I think the most satisfying part was the robustness of our discussion when whittling down the choices of prints. It became evident then just how much we had learned" —Romit Kundagrami 

Romit Kundagrami reads a work description as students, Professor Watsky, and Marquand Library Japanese Art Specialist Nicole Fabricand-Person look on.

Romit Kundagrami reads a work description as students, Professor Watsky, and Marquand Library Japanese Art Specialist Nicole Fabricand-Person look on (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Watsky has found this added responsibility of selecting prints for acquisition to intensify student investment in the course. “If the students have a stake, it has an impact on their role in relationship to the work of art,” he said. “I’ve been amazed over the years at how true that is.  They get very energized. It makes them understand how much input from people is needed to make a choice about a work of art.” Kundagrami confirms his own realization at how adept he and his classmates became at analyzing prints. “The extent of what we learned this semester was vast,” he said. “ I can now look at prints, and without receiving information about them, I can sometimes guess the artist, discern innovative techniques or printing mechanisms, have a rough (or sometimes very specific) framework for what time period the print is from, describe some of the allusions in the visual language of the print, and more. None of us came out of the course as experts on the genre, or even close to it, but the leap from where I started to where I ended is quite large, and it’s exhilarating to be on this end of it.”

On loan for the remainder of the semester, the prints became part of each seminar discussion, with mounting investment and increasingly enthusiastic debate. The course culminated in a final vote on which works to propose to the museum for acquisition.

Kwok and Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director James Steward have since approved the class’s selections, and so the collection has grown by six important Japanese prints.  Over the course of its seven iterations, ART 425 has contributed 15 works to the Museum’s Japanese print collection, all made possible by the Laura P. Hall Memorial Fund which is administered by A&A. An endowment intended for the “promotion and enjoyment of the graphic arts at Princeton,” the Hall Fund has significantly enriched the Art Museum’s prints and drawings holdings, as well as the graphic arts collections of Princeton University Libraries.

Engraving showing a river beside a building

Shiba Kōkan (1747-1818), View of Ochanomizu, dated Kinoe-tatsu haru sangatsu (Spring, third month of 1784), handcolored copperplate engraving, Hall Fund acquisition, Princeton University Art Museum

View of Ochanomizu by Shiba Kōkan (1784) is a handcolored copperplate engraving, which distinguishes it from the dominant woodblock print tradition of Japan represented in the Museum’s collection. An unusual artist in the Edo-period, Kōkan was the most prominent proponent of Western-style image-making in Japan. In 1799, he authored a treatise entitled “Discussing Western Painting” (Seiyōga dan), in which he advocated for the superiority of European (and especially Dutch) painting over what he argued were the weaknesses of traditional Japanese (and Chinese) painting. Kōkan learned how to make engravings from Dutch books acquired through a single Western trading post on the island Deshima in Nagasaki. This achieves a long-held Museum to include a work by Kōkan in the collection. The students advocated for this print to provide a comparison with the dominant woodblock print tradition that demonstrates the presence of European techniques, disproving the assumption that Japan was closed to the outside world in this period. The scene depicted is of a place in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), Ochanomizu (a neighborhood today known for its university campuses and shopping), depicted by other printmakers in the woodblock medium, but here rendered with such novel Western pictorial devices as shadows and illusionistic recession into space.  

Print showing a figure on a snowy white background

Ashiyuki Gigadō (active ca. 1813–34), Arashi Rikan II as Miyamoto Musashi in Snow, polychrome woodblock print, Hall Fund acquisition, Princeton University Art Museum (Photo/Andrew Watsky)

Ashiyuki Gigadō’s  Arashi Rikan II as Miyamoto Musashi in Snow (active ca. 1813–34) depicts a Kabuki performance by the famed professional actor Arashi Rikan II in the role of the seventeenth-century warrior hero, Miyamoto Musashi, with a poem by the artist included at the top left: "Along the path I pursue; my feet find the way; beneath the misty moon."

While Kabuki was a typical subject in prints in both Edo and Osaka, this print is unusual in that it places the actor in a snowy landscape setting. The formal language of the landscape employs a mode of depiction clearly rooted in painting practice, and this appropriation of a painting style for a theater print background was unusual for its time. One student in the seminar discovered that Arashi Rikan II is depicted in two other prints in the Museum’s collection, in different roles by different artists, offering an interesting opportunity for comparison.

Print of figure in Japanese costume with caligraphy

Hasegawa Sadanobu (1809-1879), Four amateur actors performing skits as courtesans, set of four polychrome woodblock prints, Hall Fund acquisition, Princeton University Art Museum

 

Along with Gigadō, Hasegawa Sadanobu (1809-1879) was active in Osaka, recognized as an important center of print production at the time. His set of four woodblock prints titled Four amateur actors performing skits as courtesans depicts highly unusual subject matter: each print shows a single male figure in the Kabuki tradition of a male actor playing a female role or, perhaps, wearing the clothes of a courtesan. Each man wears an elaborate woman’s kimono adorned with symbols related to each figure’s name and elaborately coiffed and ornamented wig. Unlike professional courtesans or onnagata actors—both frequent subjects of both Edo and Osaka prints—the men depicted here wear no makeup, and so their masculine facial features are abundantly clear and reveal their non-professional status. The prints are rich in research potential: each figure is surrounded by copious amounts of legible text that reveal much about the circumstances behind the prints. The high technical quality is typical of Osaka, but the unusual subject matter suggests that these prints may have been privately commissioned, likely by the men themselves, to commemorate their devotion to their avocation. Having studied the many courtesan and Kabuki actor prints produced in the city of Edo in the museum’s collection and in their readings for the seminar, the students recognized the rarity of this depiction of amateurs, and they were fascinated by the prints’ exuberant and unambiguous celebration of men performing in women’s clothing. All members of the class agree that this subject matter will attract the attention of future students and museum visitors. To date, no other copies of these prints have surfaced, and this apparent rarity makes the proposed acquisition an even more compelling opportunity.

Student examines a hand scroll on a table with fellow students in the background

Graduate student Josephine O'Neil examines a work in Marquand Library’s collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Watsky’s approach in this course has left an indelible knowledge base and appreciation of Japanese prints among his students. “I think the most satisfying part was the robustness of our discussion when whittling down the choices of prints,” said Kundagrami. “It became evident then just how much we had learned, and all the students’ comments were so informative and relevant to the decision making process. Though we were sad to see some prints excluded in the end, as a class, I think we all ended feeling very satisfied with our choices, and that’s because we had engaged so rigorously, and offered all our knowledge and understanding to that process. We leveraged considerations like the strengths and weaknesses of the current museum collection, the rarity and condition of the prints we were looking at, the pedagogical value, and the printing/artistic quality itself. In doing so, we came down to a fantastic final selection, and I could not be happier with the results.”

“It is amazing the power your peers have to change your mind, to inspire you, to advocate with you. I also think this is the moment when you realize how much Professor Watsky taught you, how powerful an impression he left without imposition or force. You absorb what he teaches and that becomes a part of how you move through the world looking at art. Then, there you are before a group of incredible objects, and you surprise yourself.” —Graduate Student Josephine O-Neil

“It is amazing the power your peers have to change your mind, to inspire you, to advocate with you,” agreed A&A graduate student Josephine O'Neil. “I also think this is the moment when you realize how much Professor Watsky taught you, how powerful an impression he left without imposition or force. You absorb what he teaches and that becomes a part of how you move through the world looking at art. Then, there you are before a group of incredible objects, and you surprise yourself.” 

Along with the excitement of seeing works in person each week and being granted the chance to select additions, a key distinguishing factor of the course was clearly the professor who taught it.  “This is a man whose passion is contagious,” said O'Neil. That passion shone through even after the course’s official end. Watsky invited students from the class to join him at Green Hall for an hour to learn about the tea ensemble.  Most students, along with Collins, were able to make it—and they stayed for three hours. Watsky brought a number of his own tea bowls to teach students examples from different kiln sites made by different artist of varying ages in various shapes. “The only thing it had to do with course was those in it were the eligible attendees,” said Watsky, “but it was a nice way to end my teaching career.  To have my last classroom experience be one that was sitting around and enjoying works of art together—and drinking a bowl or two of tea.”

Professor Watsky holds a manuscript as students look on

Andrew Watsky displays works from Marquand Library's collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)