Unpinning History : Japanese Posters in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism


Unpinning History: Japanese Posters in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism highlights USC Libraries' unique collection of Japanese posters that were produced in the 1910s and 1920s. Ephemeral by nature, posters were usually discarded after completing their missions to advertise, announce, or even agitate through an assortment of forms, colors, and letters. Moreover, posters in Japan were often destroyed during the Asia–Pacific War, sometimes purposefully so in the case of war propaganda posters, which makes the collection even more exceptional. Curated by the “Later Japanese Art” class of Spring 2020, the exhibition focuses on approximately half of the collection to illuminate themes emblematic of Japan in the tumultuous Taishō (1912–1926) and early Shōwa (1926–1989) periods. These themes include commercial and social activities, particularly tourism; the ideology of imperial modernity; beautiful women as an aesthetic category; exhibition culture; and pictorial and often hybrid styles and functions ranging from neotraditionalism derived from ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) to modernism. The exhibition provides first-hand research on the largely unexamined collection as a valuable resource for scholars and students of art in modern Japan and its colonies, including Korea and northeastern Asia, but also for those interested in early twentieth century visual culture and commerce, and reprographic technology. 

While our objective of having a physical exhibition was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this online version will be a powerful testament to collaborative endeavors, the possibilities of remote learning and teaching, and what arts and culture can offer—potency, wonder, provocation, and/or relief—in the midst of this chaotic moment. 

Rika Hiro, PhD, Dornsife Preceptor/Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow and Instructor of AHIS 387 Later Japanese Art

Co-curators: Shalexxus Aaron, Sophie Ceniza, Peilin Chen, Lilith Coryell Jenkins, Caroline Cotten, Amanda Douglas, Corey Gordon, Sally Guo, Alvin Huang, Qira Kong, Alexia Nutting, Kelli Reitzfeld, Samantha Scheinfeld, Cole Sweetwood, Ella Wilson, and Christina Yoo

With the support of Natsuko Tajima, Curator, Ōme Municipal Museum of Art, Tokyo; Kuniko Brown and Dr. Kendall Brown, Professor of Asian Art, California State University, Long Beach. The class would like to extend our gratitude to Dr. Rebecca Corbett, Japanese Studies Librarian, as well as Anne-Marie Maxwell and Tyson Gaskill of Planning and Communications, USC Libraries and The Ahmanson Lab, USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

Message to our viewers: As suggested by the exhibition subtitle, many posters in Unpinning History reflect Japan’s growing nationalism, imperialism, and militarism in the 1910s and 1920s. Subjects and languages featured in this exhibition may be offensive to view. Please refer to our bibliography page for further readings on the art and visual culture of the period.

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