Letter from Our Fellow

Eriko Tomizawa-Kay


From 2013-14, as part of my fellowship at the Sainsbury Institute, I undertook research, and completed several papers and presentations; for example, I introduced a cross-section of Meiji-period art held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, and attempted to explain why certain types of art were included in the collections, whilst others were excluded. I cast a light on the early dissemination of, and market for, modern Japanese-style paintings (nihonga), a term coined around 1880 in a surge of nationalist sentiment. Nihonga’s exposure in Japan, and its appreciation by the general public, was considered in conjunction with the development of new distribution channels, including department stores and travelling exhibitions. The distribution network revealed the increasingly dynamic role of middle-class collectors as contributors in setting the value of nihonga.

The focus of my paper was on the artist Hishida Shunsō (1874 – 1911), who suffered severe criticism during his career but whom later generations came to consider as a national icon: the historical narrative was analysed by reference to his letters and various contemporary media. This paper has been recently published in the Journal of the History of Collections (Oxford Journal), summer 2015.

One of my research outcomes was the international symposium, Deconstructing Boundaries: Is ‘East Asian Art History’ possible?, which was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London on 10 and 11 October 2015, where approximately 200 people attended over the course of the two-day event.

This symposium should be identified as, not only the second phase of an earlier symposium, the previous being held in June 2013, and titled ‘International Modern Japanese Art History Symposium – New Boundaries in the Study of Modern Japanese Art: Extending Geographical, Temporal and Generic Paradigms’, which was generously supported by the Sainsbury Institute for Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC), but also as a further development of study with the key theme, ‘Deconstructing Boundaries in East Asian Art and Japanese Art History’.

Deconstructing Boundaries: Is ‘East Asian Art History’ possible?conference speakers
Deconstructing Boundaries: Is ‘East Asian Art History’ possible?conference speakers

In the previous 2013 symposium, around 150 people attended over the course of the two-day event, including leading Japanese art historians with a broad area of expertise, and in particular with a fresh approach to art history in terms of modern methodology and historiography.

The recent symposium was jointly organized by myself, where I worked closely with the Sotheby’s Senior Scholar, Prof. Shimao Arata from Gakushuin University, and was again generously funded by the Sainsbury Institute and the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS).

The aim of this second symposium was to give insight into the changing boundaries and concepts of ‘art’ in Japan and East Asia. We had hoped especially to illuminate the exchanges and dialogues that took place among the artists of Japan and other East Asian nations.

The birth of East Asian art history could not have occurred without the symbiotic relationships among various groups of artists. The presented papers challenged the existing geographic, temporal, and generic paradigms that currently frame the art history of East Asia. Questions posed included the relationship between artistic production and political discourse. Furthermore, the role cultural legacies played in the artistic development of East Asia at large were considered. At this symposium, the discussions regarding deconstructing the boundaries of East Asian art expanded to include scholars from Chinese and Korean art history.

The symposium offered three key themes: Constructing the idea of East Asian Art in Japan, Japanese Academies as Centre, and War and Body presented by a total of sixteen speakers including five keynotes speakers from Japan.

The conference was held at the School of Oriental and African Art, University of London
The conference was held at the School of Oriental and African Art, University of London

This symposium was expected not only to enhance the awareness of East Asian Art studies from the global point of view, but also strongly to promote study and research for young scholars and students in Japan. Therefore, three representative Ph.D. candidates from Japan also presented papers with prominent scholars. Both senior and junior scholars presented their research in order to stimulate the development of further studies in the area. The participants had various backgrounds, such as Japanese art history, Korean art history, and Chinese art history.

Through the two-day 2015 symposium, questions relating to methodology in (re)constructing a broad history of East Asian art were also addressed. The audiences came from a wide background of experiences and disciplines, not only those from East Asian and European Art history backgrounds, but also contemporary artists, art critics, sociologists, and international relations specialists. All gathered together travelling from East Asia, the USA, and Europe and exchanged and shared their ideas during the discussion time and built new scholarly networks during the symposium.

This symposium attracted a wide range of scholars including those with less or little knowledge on the relationship between Japanese art and East Asian art. It was a good opportunity to develop the framework of ‘East Asian Art’ and re-investigate the definition of ‘Art History’. Moreover, the symposium speakers have shown a completely new way in which to see and analyse Japanese Art History to people who are engaged in Japanese studies in Europe, as well as to stimulate audiences with the newest topics in Japanese art history. The presentations and exchange of information about research topics have given a rare and important opportunity for in particular young scholars to create tight relationships in the near-future, and to develop intellectual communications beyond countries and their study areas.

I am grateful for the many opportunities I have had to discuss and exchange ideas with other Sainsbury fellows and scholars during my fellowship and up to this day, in order to gain a wide-range of art history-related knowledge and networking. Their comments beyond Art History subjects have enhanced my interest in the wider scope of my specialization, and have given me the enormous opportunity to consider the importance of study beyond the boundaries of existing art history.

e-Magazine contents: