Letter from Our Fellow

John Szostak

I was privileged to be selected as a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellowship for the 2010-11 academic year, during which I researched the modern Japanese painter Tsuchida Bakusen (1887–1936) and the artists that formed the fellowship of the the Kokuga Society, an important exhibition collective founded in Kyoto in 1918. I had been working on this particular project for a while, but as a newly hired academic learning the ropes of teaching, advising, and administration, it was very difficult to make progress towards completing a book manuscript.

John Szostak
John Szostak

I remember arriving in London in mid-summer four years ago, accompanied by my wife, Hiroko, and our then-8-year-old son, Kai. I vividly recall our exhaustion after over 20 hours of travel from Honolulu to Heathrow, but also my exhilaration. As it turned out, the Sainsbury Institute year ended up supplying a wonderful educational experience for all three of us. Our first task was to arrange for Kai’s schooling, and we found a wonderful school only 20 minutes walk from our flat. Hiroko, who is an art conservator by training, had previously made arrangements to visit the conservation studios of both the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, and soon found herself lending her time and expertise on select projects alongside the professionals at these institutions.

I soon got into my weekly research and writing routine that took me on my rounds to School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the National Art Library, and the British Library. The resources available to me thanks to the SOAS institutional affiliation supplied by my fellowship were, needless to say, extraordinary, and if there were any volumes I needed on Japanese art that was not available in these locations, I was almost always able to find them at the Lisa Sainsbury Library at the Sainsbury Institute in Norwich. Indeed, while my family and I thoroughly enjoyed life in busy London, I often felt most relaxed and productive during our frequent visits to Norwich, which supplied a pleasant, quiet counterpoint to the bustle of big city life.

On top of my enhanced productivity as a researcher and writer during my Sainsbury Institute year, I never ceased to be amazed and stimulated by the sheer volume of events related to the study of Japan and its culture, and of greater East Asia in London as well as in Norwich (I tried to make as many of the Third Thursday Lectures at Norwich Cathedral as I could). It seemed like every week, there was another exhibition, symposium, conference, or lecture that I could not afford to miss. Furthermore, if the subject of study ranged away from my own research interests, these occasions frequently got me thinking along new tracks, and several ideas in my book owe their origins to insights I received while listening to speakers at these events, and in conversations I had with the scholars, curators, and specialists from around the world that I met on these occasions. I also benefited greatly by the occasional visits to the British Museum to view paintings (thanks to the extreme generosity of Tim Clark and Alfred Haft of the British Museum), several of which ended up appearing in my finished book.

I also had the wonderful opportunity to receive feedback on my own research after being offered the opportunity to present my work before the Japan Research Center Seminar at SOAS, the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies Lecture series at the University of Oxford, and the Asian Studies Seminar at the University of Cambridge, the Japan Society of London, and, of course, as a Third Thursday Lecturer at Norwich Cathedral. I also took part in several colloquia and symposia, including International Exchange: Trading Material Culture, Receiving and Transforming Images, jointly organized by the Art Research Center at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and SOAS, and the Art of Japan, Japanisms and Polish-Japanese Art Relations, held at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, Krakow, Poland, both held in autumn 2010.

Painting Circles: Tsuchida Bakusen and Nihonga Collectives in Early Twentieth Century Japan (Brill, 2013)
Painting Circles: Tsuchida Bakusen and Nihonga Collectives
in Early Twentieth Century Japan (Brill, 2013)

The concrete results of this year dedicated to research, the fine-tuning of my ideas and my approaches, and intensive writing are a book entitled Painting Circles: Tsuchida Bakusen and Nihonga Collectives in Early Twentieth Century Japan, published early in 2013 by Brill, and several essays: “Foul is Fair: Abject Beauties and the Psychology of the Grotesque in Modern Japanese Painting,” inRethinking Japanese Modernism (Global Oriental, 2011), “Re-Envisioning Beauty: Female Portraiture in Modern Japanese Prints and Painting,” in The Beauty of the Moment: Women in Japanese Woodblock Prints (Museum
Rietberg, 2012), “Unexpected Reversals: Japanism, Ukiyo-e Prints, and their Influence on Meiji and Taishō-era Kyoto Nihonga,” in Art of Japan, Japanisms and Polish-Japanese Art Relations (Manggha Museum, 2013), and “‛Art is Something Born’: The Rise and Fall of the Kokuga Society (1918-1928) and the Emergence of the Kokuten Style,” inPositions: East Asia Cultures Critique (vol. 21, no. 2; Spring 2013). In this sense, it was without a doubt one of the most productive years of my career, but another result that has proven equally as important is the many connections I made with scholars based in the UK, Japan, and elsewhere, many of which have already fomented additional opportunities and enhanced my research life.

I am also very appreciative of my long-term association with the greater Sainsbury Institute community. The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, its directors, staff, and the many researchers around the world who have benefitted from the great generosity of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury are a family of sorts, and an ever-expanding one. I always look forward to attending conferences and other events where I am bound to meet the other SISJAC-ers, and to see how the fellowship year has served them as a springboard to excellence in research on Japan’s art and culture, just as it served me.

John Szostak
Associate Professor of Japanese Art History
Art History Program Chair
University of Hawai’i at Manoa
Department of Art and Art History

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