A leading expert on ukiyo-e, the “pictures of the floating world” genre in Japanese art, Davis is currently involved in an online catalog project of the Galleries’ Pulverer Collection of Japanese illustrated books and is also contributing to an upcoming exhibition about 18th-century artist Kitagawa Utamaro.
Davis first learned about the Smithsonian museums as a child living in Oregon when the son of one of her mother’s friends was planning a a trip there. A self-described, “nerdy kid” who loved to read books, Davis said she knew right away that she wanted to visit. She never dreamed she’d be contributing to projects there.
The collection is believed to be the most comprehensive assortment of Japanese illustrated books outside of Japan.
For two years, curator Ann Yonemura digitized the books from cover to cover, allowing researchers from around the world to access what they need.
“What’s amazing about this project is that all of the books are fully digitized so that you can look closely at them and click in to see the details,” said Davis.
Books from the 18th century played an important role in giving art lovers a chance to see and learn about the work of artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, whose early-1830s print “Under the wave off Kanagawa,” known familiarly as “The Great Wave,” is still popular today. Hokusai’s book, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, shows related compositions.
The Pulverer Collection, available online, has another 44 books by Hokusai, including erotica, his projects with poets, warrior tales and his teach-yourself-how-to-dance book of Kabuki dances.
“In a time before there were museums, how would you see things?” asked Davis. “You might see them at somebody’s house, you might see them in a special exhibition at a restaurant or some salon-type situation. A lot of people who were interested in painting might also learn about it through looking at illustrated books.”
Davis has been working on cataloging the collection with Alessandro Bianchi, a postdoctoral museum research fellow at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, as well as commissioning entries and essays from international specialists for the scholarly online catalog.
The website also offers videos, including demonstrations on topics such as how to make Japanese prints and how to conserve prints.
Making Japanese prints is a skillful, collaborative process involving a team of producers. The first step is carving the design into a single block. Then, each color is applied to a separate wood block.
The Freer and Sackler Galleries contacted Davis in the summer of 2014 to ask her if she’d be interested in collaborating on the Pulverer project and on an Utamaro exhibition with senior curator James Ulak.
Set to open April 8, 2017, the Utamaro exhibition will reunite three of the artist’s paintings on the theme of snow, moon and flowers.
“They span over 14 years of Utamaro’s career, from about 1788 to 1802,” said Davis. “They are thought to have been commissioned by a merchant who lived way out in the provinces, in Tochigi. He may have had them made as celebratory paintings to be used in festivals.”
It will be the first time the paintings will be exhibited together in 138 years. They were last shown together at a temple in Japan in 1879.
Davis said the three paintings were split up when they were taken to Paris sometime in the 1880s. Detroit railroad car manufacturer and art collector Charles Lang Freer purchased “Moonlight at Shinagawa” in 1903. “Flowers in the Yoshiwara” was owned by a French dealer, who sold it to the Wadsworth Atheneum. “Snow at Fukagawa” was last seen in public in Tokyo in 1948; it reemerged in Japan in 2012 and was purchased by the Okada Museum and exhibited there in 2014.
The exhibition will also bring together objects, prints and books chosen by Davis and Ulak along with the museum’s exhibition team to tell the story of Utamaro’s life, the people who bought and sold his paintings and prints and how he was understood in Paris, Tokyo and the United States at the turn of the 20th century.
“The story we often hear is that the Japanese forgot about Utamaro and Hokusai until their work was rediscovered and claimed as art in France,” said Davis. “I think that’s a myth. In one of the galleries we’ll show how the Japanese continued to appreciate ukiyo-e throughout the 19th century, how other artists imitated Utamaro in Japan and abroad and how people were writing about him and appreciating him at the time.”
The exhibition, which is as yet untitled, will also address how his work is considered today.
Davis will be a senior fellow at the Freer|Sackler in the coming academic year, writing her next book, Ukiyo-e in Context, under contract with the University of Hawai’i Press. While on fellowship, she noted, both projects will be “cooking along on the back burner.”
Davis’ connection to the Freer and Sackler Galleries could also benefit Penn students. She’s now in the planning phase of creating opportunities for students to go to the Freer|Sackler to help develop the curators of the future.
“In East Asian Art, right now there aren’t enough young people to become the next generation of curators,” said Davis. “A number of curators are probably going to retire in the next decade or so, and we need that next generation of people to come in. Part of my challenge and pleasure is exciting students about the world of Japanese art.”