This past Friday and Saturday I had the opportunity to attend The Artist in Edo Symposium, organized by the Freer Sackler gallery and National Gallery of Art. This exhibition was done on the occasion of a number of exhibitions in Washington, D.C. including “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchū (1716–1800)” at the National Gallery of Art and Hokusai: 36 Views of Mt. Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) at the Freer Sackler gallery.
I was able to view the Itō Jakuchū paintings before the symposium and they were absolutely spectacular – even larger, more detailed, and more intricate than I could’ve imagined. If you’re in the D.C. area while the exhibition is going on I highly recommend viewing them – it’s likely to be the only time they’ll visit the United States in our lifetime.
At the symposium I met a number of people whose work I greatly respect, including: Timothy Clark of the British Museum, John Carpenter of the MET Museum, and Prof. Timon Screech of the University of London. Their books line my shelves and I appreciated being able to thank them in person. I had the opportunity to tell them about the Ukiyo-e Search engine that I had been working on. There was a lot of interest amongst the Ukiyo-e scholars (as I had hoped) and eagerly anticipate feedback. (I’ll be writing a more detailed post on it, soon.)
The talks at the symposium ranged in quality and topic. The majority of the talks were on painting or calligraphy, with two on Ukiyo-e and one on pottery. A few of the talks I found to be quite illuminating and the source of encouragement for further study, including:
Melissa McCormick’s talk on “Pictorial Knowledge and the Court Artist in Edo”. This talk examined the interesting subject of official (emperor’s) court painters during the Edo period – and the work that they did while employed there. This included a couple tasks that I wouldn’t have expected, like copying scrolls for future use and re-creating architecture design based upon scroll fragments. This talk is encouraging me to read “Art and Palace Politics in Early Modern Japan, 1580s-1680s” which should cover this topic in greater depth.
Hans Bjarne Thomsen’s talk on “Daiten and Jakuchū: Meanings with the Doshoku sai-e Paintings” (e.g. the paintings being displayed in the colorful realm exhibition). I found this to be the best talk at the symposium regarding the Jakuchū paintings. It covered the relationship of Jakuchū and the monk Daiten and how they influenced each other and collaborated. Daiten even wrote text to bring additional meaning to the Jakuchū paintings, beyond the ‘simple’ images presented on the scroll.
Chelsea Foxwell’s talk on “The Painter and the Archive: The Work and Play of Copying in the Late Edo Period”. This was a very cursory talk examining the concept of artists copying works by other artists (either being inspired by them or being directly traced). This is certainly an incredibly in-depth subject and one that goes way beyond just the late Edo period (extending well into Ukiyo-e as well). I look forward to seeing additional research on this.
Timothy Clark’s talk on “The Jakuchū Memorial Exhibition of 1885″. I perhaps enjoyed this talk the best. Mr. Clark provided an incredibly in-depth examination of this single event, doing extensive research into the curators of the exhibition, the location, its circumstances, and the history of posthumous artist exhibitions in Japan. He presented a level of scholarship that I’ve come to appreciate in his work, even presenting personal photographs of locations as they stand today, and I’m happy that I got to learn more about it from him.
Timon Screech’s talk on Ukiyo-e art and Ukiyo culture (the talk was sort of an impromptu talk given after hearing the other talks). Prof. Screech gave a whirlwind tour of the birth of Ukiyo and provided minor glimpses into the culture as a whole. It was surprising to me just how little of the symposium mentioned Ukiyo-e (based upon the talk, I suspect that Prof. Screech felt the same and wanted to provide some context for those attending). Most of the content was well-trod for me at this point and I was surprised at just how shocked the audience seemed to be at the subject matter (especially after learning how common prostitution was in Ukiyo culture). I suspect that most of the scholars at the symposium are rather insulated when it comes to their particular interests.
Unfortunately a number of the talks presented used rather specious arguments to make some rather extravagant claims (there were a few talks that examined particular artist’s painting styles and made claims about the artist’s personality or sexuality based upon that). It disappoints me that so much of art history scholarship is still based upon these conjectures when in-depth scholarship can usually provide an answer that is much clearer and fact-driven.
I enjoyed attending this symposium. It was a great opportunity to see a number of scholars whose work I admire and it was interesting to listen to the talks on a variety of subjects.