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History of Art Curatorial Seminar offers in-depth and hands-on exploration of Japanese prints

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History of Art Curatorial Seminar offers in-depth and hands-on exploration of Japanese prints

By Hillary Halter

In my time at Penn, I’ve been fortunate to have taken not just one, but three curatorial seminars, all geared towards undergraduates and working with eminent art institutions in Philadelphia. My freshman year I worked with the Institute of Contemporary Art on a show about Andy Warhol taught by avant-garde contemporary poet Kenny Goldsmith. During my junior year I took a class on Paul Strand co-taught by Penn professor Karen Beckman and Peter Barberie, the Curator of Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in preparation for a major exhibition of Strand’s work at the PMA. And for my final semester at Penn and my last Art History class as an undergraduate the opportunity to engage with art works and art devotees within and outside the bounds of Penn’s campus presented itself once again. I eagerly applied to be a part of Professor Julie Davis’s curatorial seminar on modern Japanese prints, despite my relatively little knowledge of Asian art. Over the course of a semester, I learned an immense amount about Japanese art and print culture, visiting the collections at the PMA, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Penn’s very own Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Additionally, Professor Davis’s class outlined the steps necessary for preparing an exhibition. She structured the class so as to allow for the opportunity to collaboratively craft an upcoming show at the Arthur Ross Gallery, set to open in April 2015 and tentatively titled The Poetry of Place: Landscape and Imagination in Japanese Prints.

Though the exhibition will focus on Japanese prints from the twentieth century, in order to understand this art form, Professor Davis began our class at the very beginning with the emergence of ukiyo-e in Edo Period Japan. Progressing through the centuries of this incredibly expansive medium, we focused on depictions of meisho in Japanese prints, meaning “famous places” both within Japan, such as Mount Fuji, and sites from around the world. We learned these different eras of Japanese printing not by looking at images in books or slide projections.  Instead, for a portion of the semester we met at the print room of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Week after week, we were able to closely examine amazing works of art, specially and exclusively picked for our class’s private viewing. In addition to viewing prints at the PMA, we looked at a beautiful collection of fifty prints by the twentieth-century artist Tokuriki. And amazingly, to view this collection, titled Scenes of Sacred Places and Historic Landmarks, we travelled just a five-minute walk from our usual classroom to Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.


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Perhaps one of the best aspects of this class was the collaborative environment. With each print viewing, Professor Davis asked us for our own opinions about which works we would like to include in the final exhibition. Our last class ended on a bittersweet note: voting in order to decide which prints would be cut from our show. As classmates passionately argued for prints to be included we all realized that we had gained more than just an understanding of Japanese prints; each of us had developed a love for this art form. I can’t wait to see what final decisions Professor Davis makes and I’m already planning to visit the show when it opens next spring.  


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Hillary Halter received her BA in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in June 2014. On campus, she was a member of the ICA Student Board and the History of Art Undergraduate Advisory Board. She studied abroad at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where she enjoyed travelling and visiting many museums and galleries. She is currently working at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.


Edited by Kenna O'Rourke