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Archive for the ‘Emaki’ Category

Urashima Monogatari Scroll (detail), L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU. An amazingly rich, gorgeously painted object.

I’ve just come back from a workshop at Brigham Young University (in Provo, UT), where they invited grad students and professors to come and check out their library’s stunning collection of Japanese objects.

The objects themselves are quite incredible. They have some 400 items in the collection, which is roughly 390-something more than we have here at UCSB* … While some experts in such things may be able to speak to the rarity and exceptional quality of the items in the BYU collection, and how they compare to those at Harvard, Yale, etc., what was of much more interest to me was simply the objects themselves, the topics they covered, and their incredible beauty. Sure, it’s great to have a high-quality (tokusei-bon 特製本) copy of a Kôetsu-bon of the Noh play Tatsuta – an extremely fine and presumably quite rare example of one of the earliest forms of Japanese movable type printing, from the very beginning of the 17th century – but, for me, it was the lengthy, highly detailed, vividly colored scroll paintings of mining on Sado Island, as well as even more gorgeously painted scrolls of foreign peoples & ships, that struck my eye. How many universities have such wonderful primary resources for studying early modern Japanese mining? Or early modern Japanese attitudes / perceptions / conceptions of foreigners?

EDIT:These are not only aesthetically, stylistically, technically, masterful works, many of them in amazingly good condition, but they are simultaneously excellent historical works. They tell us something not only about the artist, or the cultural milieu, the way the endless rotations of landscapes & birds-and-flowers at so many of our art museums do; these are stunningly beautiful while also serving as a window into the history itself – the history of mining, of ships, of foreign relations. Boy, I so want to secure a museum job some day so I can put together shows of works like these.

Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine) Scroll, detail.

Two things I found especially wonderful and incredible about this collection, outside of the objects themselves. One, Prof. Jack Stoneman and others are using the collection as an opportunity to teach BA and MA students, in a very direct and hands-on manner, how to handle such objects, how to examine them closely and use them as research materials, and how to perform research about them, i.e. gaining first-hand experience at bibliographic research, tracking down provenance, comparing extant examples to determine how rare or how high-quality your copy is…. all skills that are essential for anyone seeking to go into museum, library, or archive work (or, nearly so, I suppose, depending on the position and the institution), and valuable too for a wide variety of other career paths. I’ve interned at several museums, and have an MA in Art History, and I don’t think I have quite the experience, the practice, that these students are gaining. Plus, the professors at BYU are using these primary sources to teach students hentaigana and kuzushiji.

Second, Prof. Stoneman told us something about the history of the collection, and it’s pretty incredible. Most of this collection comes from a man named Harry F. Bruning, who collected a wide variety of things, and sold much of it to a David Magee, who then sold it to the university. As far as we know, Bruning never went to Japan – didn’t even speak Japanese – and so, with my apologies for saying so, I’m not sure that Bruning himself is quite as fascinating a figure as, say, Bigelow, Morse, or Okakura, who traveled and dressed in traditional clothing and more actively engaged with the artistic & cultural worlds of the introduction of Japanese art into the US, and of the introduction of Westerners into Japan…. What’s really fascinating about the Bruning story is the way that Stoneman began to track down information about the collection. While looking through reference books from BYU’s library, such as a 1931 hard copy print catalog of the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings, he noticed prices and checkmarks and the like penciled into the margins. And he noticed the same marks, in the same handwriting, in a few other books from the BYU library. And then he found, by some wonderful expert searching, a ledger or account book, also in the BYU Special Collections, but not well-cataloged or labeled (simply because no one had really looked at it closely enough before), which it turns out was Bruning’s own ledger, a daily diary of things he bought, sold, or inquired about!! But, this diary doesn’t happen to have any Japanese materials listed in it, and further, while there is reason to believe Bruning compiled a highly organized and detailed list of his own collection before handing it over to Magee, that book, if it still exists, is yet to be found. Is it also in the BYU library somewhere? Is it in the possession, somewhere, of Bruning’s relatives? … In short, it turns out it’s not just the Japanese materials themselves (and a huge wealth of other materials, incl. Western sheet music) which were The Bruning Collection, but actually it would seem a whole ton of reference books, booksellers’ catalogs, etc., which have now become scattered across the library collections, and so it’s sort of a treasure hunt to find Bruning’s handwritten notes in books throughout the library, and to piece this back together.

Ryûkyûjin dôro gakki zu (Ryukyuans Street Music Instruments Scroll)(detail). A handpainted copy of the scrolls I saw at the University of Hawaiʻi Library (Sakamaki-Hawley Collection).

I find the whole thing quite encouraging, because it means that just maybe, depending on the institution and the situation there, I just might be able to find myself – despite not having a PhD in Art History, despite not being Curator or Librarian or Archivist – nevertheless getting to work very closely with a collection, researching it myself and/or working with students to use the materials to teach them, and to help them acquire research skills as well.

All photos my own. All objects, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

*As far as I am aware, within the Art Library’s Special Collections, not counting “Main” Special Collections, or what may be owned by the Art, Design, and Architecture (AD&A) Museum on campus.

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Photo copyright Dale De La Rey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

The New York Times reports today about a particularly interesting exhibition in Hong Kong, combining one of the most famous of all traditional Chinese paintings with new technology, bringing the scene depicted in the Song dynasty handscroll to life in video.

Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival,” also known by a number of other variant translations of the Chinese title, was painted by Zhang Zeduan roughly 900 years ago. It is the only surviving record of Zhang Zeduan’s existence, and so, very little is known about the artist. But it depicts a lively urban scene along the river in Bianliang (today known as Kaifeng), which unrolls before the eyes as one scrolls through the painting, eventually making one’s way to a large bridge, and then, beyond that, to the gates of the palace.

In this video exhibition, previously displayed at the Shanghai World Expo earlier this year, the lively city scene actually moves and comes to life. Even putting aside the technical logistics of doing the graphics effects, I can only imagine how much might have gone into cultural/historical consultancy about what various things depicted were, how people might have moved and behaved… Or, then again, maybe there isn’t that much need for it. Even 900 years ago, people were people, and the way people walk hasn’t changed, has it? I don’t know. Maybe it has.

Is this just a gimmick? Or something we will see more of? Only time will tell.

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I feel a fool. I passed by signs and stone markers for the Sanjô Palace on more than one occasion, and though I took photos of them, I didn’t really give it a second thought, failing to recognize or realize the identity or importance of the site. I saw a model of the palace at the Museum of Kyoto (京都文化博物館), took photos of that, appreciated the opportunity to see an example of Heian period shinden-zukuri architecture, of which the Byôdôin may be the only remaining full-size, authentic, example, and still did not put it together. It was only later, while labeling photos and reading the sign which I previously had only photographed and not read, that I had the realization.

Above: All that remains today of the Sanjô Palace is this stone marker, just outside the Shinpûkan, a very modern (and quite pleasant and attractive) shopping / cultural center in a repurposed Meiji period red brick building. A wooden sign standing next to the stone briefly describes the history of the palace.

The Siege of the Sanjô Palace took place in early 1160, and marked the primary action of the Heiji Rebellion. Minamoto no Yoshitomo, along with Fujiwara no Nobuyori and about five hundred warriors, attacked the palace, kidnapping Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa and setting the palace aflame.


Image copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Usage is intended under fair use; I claim no ownership or rights to this image.

The attack is depicted in a quite famous handscroll painting, the “Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace” (三条殿焼討), in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and of which I happen to have a modern reproduction. The whole scroll can be viewed online at a great site run by Bowdoin University. One source (admittedly published by the Museum, though nevertheless quite trustworthy and reliable, I would say) describes the scroll as “universally considered the most powerful battle scene in all of Japanese art.”

And powerful it is. The handscroll format allows events to unfold in a chronological, storytelling-like manner. The viewer first sees a crowd of warriors, some on foot, some on horseback, some holding bows, along with a number of wheeled oxcarts, rushing to the left. They reach the gates of the palace, and already, in a lower register, we begin to see fighting. Scrolling just the tiniest bit further (from right to left, as Japanese scrolls traditionally are read), at the top of the image, we already begin to see smoke and flame. The battle is fierce; heads are chopped off, and by the end of the scroll, we see them displayed atop pikes. The Emperor is captured and taken away, and the palace burned down; the description of the flames in this 13th century work is really incredible.

As with any work, or event, or period, I cannot claim that I solely, or primarily, claim connection to it, let alone ownership of it as a subject of research or anything like that. For such a famous work, I am sure there are plenty of people who feel a special connection to it, and many with more reason than I. Still, this work, and the historical events behind it (the very first Wikipedia entries I ever wrote were on the Genpei War, which developed out of the aftermath of this conflict), are fairly special to me, and so I am surprised at myself for not recognizing the Sanjô Palace as being *that* Sanjô Palace, when I came across the model, and the site itself.


A model of the Sanjô Palace, on display at the Museum of Kyoto as an example of Heian period shinden-zukuri architecture. Click through for a more thorough description of this form of architecture, and for other photos relating to this model.

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As I mentioned several posts ago, the Metropolitan is currently hosting an exhibition of works acquired in the last 30 years, under Philippe de Montebello’s leadership as Director. Each department chose their favorite pieces to include in the exhibition, and I’m sure that each visitor has their own favorites from within that group. Here’s some of my favorites.


“Night Shining White”, by Han Gan and “Old Trees, Level Distance” by Guo Xi, two of the most famous of all Chinese paintings, or at least two of the most core pieces in the college-level Chinese art history curriculum here in the States as far as I’m aware. Guo Xi stands as a paragon of Chinese literati painters, his works defining the core examples of the genre. Meanwhile, “Night Shining White” remains one of the most lauded Chinese paintings of a horse. Despite the relatively simple composition and basic brushstrokes, it has been said that he captured not only the image of the horse, but its fiery spirit as well. Having seen these images in my college Chinese art history classes, it’s really amazing to see these works in person.

“Marilyn Monroe, Actress, New York City”, May 6, 1957, by Richard Avedon. We are all used to Marilyn Monroe as the ultimate celebrity, the object of admiration and adoration. To see her as a vulnerable, innocent, young woman, tired, and not playing the character, is really something.

Aki no yonaga monogatari emaki” (Handscroll painting of ‘Tale of a Long Autumn Night’). The opposite of the Han Gan and Guo Xi works, I’d never heard of this one at all. Which is in itself interesting and attention-grabbing. What is this story? Is it a historical event? A well-known legend? Or something else? With relatively few emaki from this period surviving, or at least relatively few outstanding examples, it’s a pleasant surprise to be introduced to a new one.

A koto with case. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so complete before; that is to say, with the lacquered case as well. The main thing that struck me about this piece was the crane crest (mon); the gallery label identifies this as the Karasumaru clan mon, though other clans used it as well. This was displayed near another case, which held a Chinese qin (the Chinese cousin to the Japanese koto) and Congolese ivory trumpet, a keen example of the way the exhibit sought to inspire the visitor to contemplate connections across place and time.

One of two busts of Medicis in the exhibit, I thought the inclusion of both was unnecessary and overkill, considering how many other pieces were cut, and how much the exhibit was striving for diversity. That said, one of the two was displayed right next to a Congolese “power figure”, making an interesting comparison of a European “power figure”. Marble is an extremely hard material, and I have a hard time imagining how one would even go about carving/sculpting it, but on this piece in particular, the features seem especially soft, gentle, and flowing.

A Tibetan-style Chinese Ming Dynasty rag-dung trumpet. These instruments are normally fairly plainly decorated – the main body being made of wood, bamboo, or some other naturally material, with brass or other metal fittings and highlights. As the gallery label explains, cloissonne is normally reserved for lacquered boxes, or vases. But this piece is covered in enameled cloissonne, and a beautiful image of dragons running all the way down the trumpet, chasing a Buddhist object typically translated into English as “wish-granting jewel”.

I don’t normally study Indian art, or give it much thought. But this piece really caught my eye. It’s an amazingly sharp and realistic depiction, and not what I would have expected from Indian art, given that the art of China, Japan, Arabia, and pretty much everywhere else have their respective distinctive stylistic elements that distinguish them from one another; straightforward, sharp, direct, detailed sketches don’t really strike me as being “distinctively Indian.” But then, what do I know?

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It’s been nearly a week since I’ve updated. I’ve grown lax. But in the meantime, I’ve reached new heights of daily hits (though still no comments). Thank you, everyone, for your support!

Ryukyu Edo Nobori Emaki - Detail - British Musuem

I changed my banner image some days ago to a section of a Ryûkyû Edo Nobori scroll housed in the British Museum. The scroll was on display two years ago, when I was in London attending SOAS; the British Museum’s Japanese gallery had just been reopened after a renovation, with a fantastic exhibit describing Japan’s history (not just art history, but political/economic/cultural/social history) through art. This is precisely the sort of thing I should like to do should I hyopthetically ever become a curator.

This scroll is one of a great number of representations of the tribute missions made by representatives of the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa) to the shogun’s capital at Edo. The kingdom was a semi-independent vassal to Satsuma han for most of the Edo period, and representatives from the kingdom journeyed to Edo eighteen times over the course of the period, to pay their respects to the shogunate on behalf of the kingdom. These missions were a great source of glory for the Shimazu clan lords of Satsuma, the only daimyo to have a foreign kingdom as its vassal (in fact, when the Ryukyuan king was brought to Japan in 1609-11 as a prisoner of war following Satsuma’s invasion of Ryukyu, it was the first time a foreign king had come to Japan), and extensive efforts were made to emphasize the foreignness and exoticness of the kingdom. The passing of the Ryukyu missions, a very rare glimpse of the outside world for the majority of the Japanese people, was thus a very special, rare, vibrant and colorful cultural affair; everything from the costumes of the representatives to their language, dances and song, and the accents on their palanquins, horses, etc. was exotic, exciting, and new. Ryukyu seems to have captured the interest and imagination of a wide range of people, not only commoners and peasants, but also scholars and government officials such as Arai Hakuseki, and artists, who captured the events in paintings and woodblock prints. Official record paintings such as this one were also created by painters officially in the service of the shogunate.

Ryukyu Edo Nobori Emaki - Detail 2 - British Musuem

Let’s look at the work itself. Its official description on the British Museum website indicates that this pair of handscroll paintings by Kanô Shunko 狩野春湖 (d. 1726) represent the 1710 mission, the largest in the history of the practice (168 Ryukyuans accompanied roughly 1000 representatives of Satsuma on the domain’s sankin kôtai journey to Edo). It is in amazing condition for an object so old, practically perfect on at least the sections I saw, the colors as vivid and bright as if they were painted yesterday; the paper is covered in gold foil on the reverse side, giving some indication of the high class, formal shogunate Kanô school origin of the work.

I unfortunately can only make out on inscription on the two detail images I have; the man in red being carried in a palanquin on the first detail is identified as the vice envoy, ueekata of Yoza (副使 与座親方, fukushi yoza ueekata). “Ueekata”, the Okinawan reading of the characters normally pronounced “oyakata” in Japanese, being one of the ranks of nobility in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Yoza a placename, the area in which or over which this man was the “ueekata”.

I wish I could make out the inscriptions identifying the figures on the other, longer, detail. Though the red color and style of the roof of the palanquin, which suggests perhaps more Chinese-influenced style than what might be seen in Japan, makes me think the man being carried might be the Ryukyuan chief envoy, perhaps even a royal prince, the men all around him are easily identified as Japanese, not Okinawan, by their clothing. Laborers in dark blue carry the palanquin, samurai in light blue, brown, and black accompanying them. Behind them are men in orange costume of a distinctively different, non-Japanese style. Though I cannot read these inscriptions, I can make out at least the character 刀, read “katana” or “” and indicating a blade of some sort; I therefore imagine that these inscriptions refer to the weapons carried, not to the carriers. In any case, it is those orange robes and hats, along with the Ryukyuan’s facial features, perhaps skin tone, and certainly their language, songs, and dances, which would have seemed marvelously foreign, exotic, and exciting to Japanese who caught a glimpse of the mission as it journeyed overland from Osaka (?, perhaps somewhere else on the Inland Sea coast) to Edo along the major highways of the nation.

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