Art Matters by Andrew Watsky, Professor of Japanese Art, Department of Art and Archaeology

In real time and in real space, a student encounters a work of art without glass or another artificial interface. To my mind, this is the ideal way to study or teach art history, and with the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection and its commitment to the University’s teaching mission, the Museum is—in normal times—the perfect place to do both. These are not normal times, of course, with Museum reconstruction and the COVID pandemic turning what was previously an easy walk from a McCormick classroom to Museum storage into a logistical challenge. After all this time teaching on Zoom, though, teaching in person with real art seemed to me an urgent priority. And so I committed to offering my most Museum-intensive course this past fall, ART 425: “The Japanese Print.”

“The Japanese Print” takes a chronological and thematic approach, examining the development of woodblock prints in the Edo period (1615–1868), when this art form exploded in popularity. We read and discuss scholarship and spend at least half of each session in the Museum with actual prints. The Museum has a growing collection of Edo-period prints, with some strengths as well as weaknesses, and both serve the pedagogical purposes of the seminar. Over the semester, the students gain knowledge of Japanese printmaking techniques, aesthetics, and conservation as well as Princeton’s holdings. As a part of the seminar, they also recommend a print to enter the Museum’s collections. The work is selected, from a group on offer from the New York gallery Sebastian Izzard LLC, to build on a strength or fill a gap in Princeton’s holdings. Each student also devises an individual research project, which culminates in an oral presentation and a final paper; often these projects are focused on prints in the Museum’s holdings. Each facet of the seminar, in short, depends on access to, and close study of, actual prints.

This past fall required a greater commitment than usual from everyone involved in the seminar. For a variety of reasons, the seminar took place at an irregular time, from 7:30 to 10:20 p.m., and to study the prints, we had to travel to the Museum’s off-site classroom. All in-person interactions were conducted with masks while maintaining a healthy social distance. We also had to accept that all this could collapse and we would revert to Zoom if the pandemic worsened, and the dearest aspect of the course—study of the actual work of art—would be the immediate casualty.

In retrospect, and perhaps because of all of the above, this iteration of “The Japanese Print” turned out to be one of the most satisfying teaching experiences of my career. Students did not balk at the evening time. Their energy fed me, and the unusualness of having meaningful discussions about prints late into the evening lent a special aura to our joint endeavor. Travel to the off-site classroom required coordination and the assistance of a team of professionals in Princeton’s Transportation and Parking Services. Upon arrival the Museum staff and collections associate Joelle Collins, PhD (who every week prepared our prints for us), greeted us, and we were off to work, focused on that week’s prints.

In Japan proper museum storage viewing entails wearing a mask, pandemic or not—so as not to spew contaminants on the art—and so that aspect became part of our expected behavior as art historians. We spaced prints across tables and on the print-viewing shelves, the better to socially distance. Sebastian Izzard generously made the trip to Princeton to show us his prints—group travel to his gallery in New York seemed unwise during the pandemic. That session with him lasted well past our normal hour, as students looked, discussed, and winnowed the large group of prints down to the five that Dr. Izzard left with us so that we could study them the rest of the semester. The last act of the semester, the students’ vote for the print they recommended for purchase, sparked a lively debate that went until almost midnight as students weighed the relative merits of the final candidates. They voted, and Kunisada’s Snowy Morning is now part of Princeton’s collections.

The pandemic and closing of the Museum created conditions that made the study of real objects difficult. And yet it is precisely because such study became more challenging that its preciousness became so clear. Even before the pandemic and with the old Museum in full swing, I never took the object for granted, nor, I think, did generations of Princeton students exposed to the art in the Museum. Zoom served us well during the pandemic, meaningful learning took place, we managed to study art through digital and other means—but it did not replace the real. The intentionality of so much that allowed “The Japanese Print” of fall 2021 to unfold successfully underscored the simple truth that studying real art, and not its virtual replication, makes all the difference.

Andrew M. Watsky
Professor of Japanese Art, Department of Art & Archaeology