Winter cabin fever lingering? Weather got you down? You can to get away from it all without leaving town — all you have to do is head for the Princeton University campus where a pair of exhibitions at the Princeton University Art Museum will take you across oceans and over continents, with some time travel thrown in for good measure.
A modestly scaled exhibition of 19th and 20th-century Japanese prints functions as an easy-to-take graphic trip along the Tokaido Road, an ancient thoroughfare that stretches from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto. At the time when these prints were made, the road was thought to be the setting for daring and romantic adventures.
Once you have made your way along that scenic highway, you can travel further back in time and head west for a stop on the Grand Tour, with a close look at Rome during the years when it was the “place to go” for upper middle class tourists; an era when a steady stream of visitors came from Northern Europe and Britain to take in the sights.
“The Tokaido Road: 19th and 20th-Century Journeys Through Japanese Prints” centers on the work of Hiroshige, one of the most acclaimed Japanese woodblock artists. Drawn from hundreds of versions of the subject by that artist, the featured prints are presented in the company of more recent images of similar vistas by early 20th-century artists who were influenced by his work. While the exhibition is modest in scale, Xiaojin Wu, assistant curator of Asian art, says the assembled prints are food for graphic thought. “We chose several versions of the same scene to encourage people to think about what makes a good print. If you have only one version, that doesn’t happen.”
Drawn from the holdings of the Princeton University Art Museum, Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, and the Graphic Arts Collection of Firestone Library, the assembled images document the diversity possible within the formal limits of the Japanese print, as they speak of Hiroshige’s powerful influence on the artists that followed. Wu says that even today the Tokaido Road remains a popular subject for artists, describing it as a continuing artistic presence. “Art and tradition have celebrated the highway for over a century,” she says.
The exhibition visits some of the 53 stations — rest stops that offered lodging and food to travelers. While medium and style are limited, images from different editions by several artists graphically document graphic variety using size, format, and process. Scenes from more recent hand-scrolls and albums are juxtaposed with those by Hiroshige — large and small. A pair of scrolls offers broad landscape vistas that contrast with two more tightly focused snowy landscapes showing the same scene. Shono, an accordion-fold album once owned by Albert Einstein, looks at the human experience. And a small black and white print by Mizushima Nio in a bound volume brings the Road into the modern era with the inclusion of a railroad train cutting through the ancient landscape.
Inspired by Hiroshige, Otani Sonyu and Iguchi Kashu traveled the Tokaido in 1919 and then collaborated on a series of “modern” versions of the legendary post stations. Impressionistic landscapes were rendered as a series of eight painted hand scrolls. Those in the exhibition, which are luxury printed versions of the originals, include additional areas of printed color that were added later using woodblocks. The Hiroshige works are rendered using the traditional flat passages of color associated with the Japanese print, while the scrolls illustrate the fluid “brush strokes” and translucent color of the wash drawing. And the bound print demonstrates the possibilities of a single color.
The next stop on the graphic getaway is Rome during the years when visitors thought of it as “the capital of the world.” In “Lasting Impressions of the Grand Tour: Giuseppe Vasi’s Rome,” that artist’s remarkably detailed views of the city are staged with the work of some 20 others including Canaletto and Vasi’s more famous student, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Originally organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, the collection has a new look at Princeton with inclusions from other sources, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Museum holdings. It also has a new focus, says Laura M. Giles, curator of prints and drawings, who organized the Princeton exhibit. “It originally centered on Vasi. We have made it smaller and refocused it to concentrate on the Grand Tour.”
With less Vasi than the original and more diverse content, the exhibition allows visitors to assume the mantle of an 18th-century traveler using views, guidebooks, souvenirs and maps to explore the city. The telling array of imagery graphically documents Rome with monuments, festivals, street scenes, architectural fantasies, and long vistas. Collectively, the assembled work paints a finely detailed picture of the Eternal City at a time when it was considered the cultural and artistic center of Europe, a “must see” destination with countless intellectual and antiquarian attractions. In the process, the exhibition functions as a rich architectural record with a breathtaking array of ancient and contemporary scenes. A state-of the-art interactive display lets visitors bring their Roman visit up-to-date by juxtaposing modern color photographs of many of the featured works with those in the exhibition.
Prints, maps, paintings, sculpture, and small objects capture the richness of the city street by street and, often, structure by structure, with intricate renderings of churches, palaces, ancient monuments, and public squares. “This is view-driven show,” says Giles, “more specially related to the tourist experience. It captures the mystique of the Grand Tour.”
Vasi was one of the most prolific and affordable artists of the time. His etchings, as individual prints or as bound volumes, were meant as mementos and, in the process, frequently served as tourist guides with useful travel information. Giles describes this and other artists’ similar work as “high-end postcards that captured the splendors of the city.”
While Vasi is best known for a series of 10 enormous, lavishly illustrated books that were intended as elegant souvenirs, he also produced a smaller illustrated guide, featured in the exhibition, that could be carried by hand. Giles points out that the artist was not only guiding the tourist but also marketing his work in the little book; he included endnotes explaining that larger versions of these images were available at his shop.
The first ever exhibition to focus on Vasi, the collection offers a view of the city that reflects the artist’s concern with precisely documenting his subject. Complex vistas, important architecture — past and present — and scenes ranging from oxcarts in transit to princely activities immerse the viewer in Roman life at the time.
The entry gallery sets the stage with an earlier painting by Gaspar Van Wittel, a Dutch artist, featuring the Piazza del Popolo, where a visitor from the North would have his first glimpse of Rome..
“I have tried to collapse Vasi’s career on one wall,” says Giles. Heroically scaled maps by several artists and a equally detailed “Prospetto” round out the introduction to 18th-century Rome.
The tour moves on in the next gallery with a generous sampling of the sights: the Colosseum, Fontana de Trevi; the Spanish Steps; and the ultimate souvenir, a fantasy painting that combines many of the Roman touristic favorites in a single location, a prospect allowing the Grand Tourist to take memories of his visit home in a single image.
The tour of the city ends in the final gallery with an introduction to some of the tourists and Vasi’s patrons, a gathering of finely attired gentlemen. Another more sardonic view of visiting travellers is offered in small caricatures by Pier Leone Ghezzi; works that show visitors in a less flattering light. Also included is the aforementioned small guidebook with a view of the Campodigio, on display near a larger version of the same site and sampling of popular “souvenirs.”
“The Tokaido Road: 19th- and 20th-Century Journeys through Japanese Prints,” on view through June 5, Princeton University Art Museum. www.princetonartmuseum.org.
Also, “Lasting Impressions of the Grand Tour: Giuseppe Vasi’s Rome,” on view through June 12.
Editor’s note: This story was assigned and submitted prior to the recent tragedies in Japan.