Greenwood Curates AMAM’s New Japanese Print Exhibition

Nicholas Vigilante

The Ainsworth collection of Japanese prints on display at the Allen Memorial Art Museum aims to challenge preconceived notions of Asian art. With the debut of his exhibition, recently appointed Joan L. Danforth Assistant Curator of Asian Art Kevin Greenwood encourages museumgoers to observe the similarities between Western and Eastern art.

Greenwood’s appointment has been a major turning point for the AMAM, as the museum had been in need of a curator of Asian art since 2003. “I’m just really excited to be here,” Greenwood said. “I’m looking forward to a long career here.” According to AMAM Curator of Collections Andria Derstine, the new position was made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the fall of 2012 and a generous donation from the wife of an Oberlin alumnus. “We’re thrilled to have him with us,” Derstine said, adding that the new position involves not only curating exhibitions of Asian art but also conducting research on the collection, organizing outreach efforts and managing acquisitions. Open to the public from Feb. 3 through June 7 of this year, A Life in Prints: Mary Ainsworth and the Floating World is the first exhibition curated by Greenwood and is housed in the AMAM’s second-floor Ripin Print Gallery. The exhibition includes selections from a collection of Japanese woodblock prints obtained by Mary A. Ainsworth, OC 1889, and donated to the College in 1950.

The exhibition displays several prints ranging from the late 17th century to 1920. This is the first exhibition in the AMAM to utilize QR codes, which can be scanned with smartphones and provide internet links to even more information and resources, including videos and photo albums. Greenwood said he would involve technology even more directly in future projects, including one featuring contemporary filmmaker Lu Yang. The Floating World referred to in the name of this exhibition is not an actual place at all, but a cultural phenomenon from 17thcentury Edo (modern-day Tokyo) that belonged to the class of merchants and artisans. Many of these craftspeople invested money in the entertainment business, spurring a close relationship between ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and theater. The curated display depicts the evolving relationship between medium and subject matter. Many prints, especially those from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, include actors as primary subjects; some of them were even used to advertise for Edo theaters.

Prints have not always been considered a form of art in Japanese culture, despite their prevalence in museums around the world. “Some traditional Japanese art historians today don’t think of them as pure art, art with a capital ‘A’,” said Professor of Art and East Asian Studies Bonnie Cheng. According to Greenwood, the West first noticed Japanese prints when they were used as wrapping paper to ship more expensive goods to Europe. These prints, for much of their history, were the equivalent to modern day magazines, comic books and posters, according to Greenwood. Their lack of value meant that they were not often preserved. Nevertheless, AMAM has secured an abundance of rare early prints.

The exhibition highlights the cultural differences between European and Japanese perceptions of art with regard to prints. In the West, art is often associated with a single artist who conceives and creates the work; the prints on display are not necessarily associated with a sole author. According to Cheng, “a triumvirate of artisan, publisher and inker and carver” exists for each piece on display. The publisher would pick a topic, which the artisan would design. The carver would then copy the design into the wood and ink the print. The publisher was in charge of sales of these prints. In some cases, publishers’ names would be as well-known as the artists’ names. Greenwood’s next goal is to change the way that museumgoers think about Asian art. Recognizing that many patrons’ perceptions of Asian art as “exotic” inhibit their understanding and appreciation, he seeks to highlight the similarities between all art styles and integrate them into other sections of AMAM.

The “exotic” lens through which American museumgoers view art may contribute to a Eurocentric bias toward Western art in museums, according to Professor Cheng. “Students who are coming into [my course ‘The Art of Japanese Prints’] at the beginning of the semester tell me, ‘I’m tired of European art,’” said Cheng. The AMAM’s Asian art collection is larger than one might expect, and according to Derstine, Asian art constitutes one-third of the Allen’s works. Greenwood believes that the trend of museum curators’ bias toward Western art is “something that’s changing,” though he admits that there is still work to be done. More than anything else, Derstine wants the resurgence of Asian art at the AMAM to inspire even more collaboration between the College and the Museum.