Fellows and their Research

Colors of Modernity: Synthetic Dyes and Changing Aesthetics of Japanese Woodblock Prints

The history of synthetic dyes used in Japanese art is a truly exciting area for me. After obtaining my Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Chicago, I received the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cultures of Conservation at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, where I worked on a joint project with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to examine the impact of synthetic dyes on late 19th century Japanese woodblock prints. This year, I have been fortunate to receive the support and fellowship from the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures to continue my project.

Among all colours, I am especially interested in purple and red, which were called as ‘colours of the age.’ These two colours, produced by synthetic dyes, were extensively used in prints from the 1860s to the 1880s. Their highly saturated and bright visual effects created aesthetics different from previous Japanese prints. Accidentally discovered by the British chemist William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) in 1856, the first synthetic dye, Perkin’s mauve, had a huge impact on not only the dyeing industry but also the birth of organic chemistry in Europe. By the 1870s, Japanese artists and printers had already begun to incorporate synthetic dyes in prints. The earliest usage of aniline dyes in Japanese prints appeared around 1864, when the colour magenta was used in the border of the print as a frame, imitating the mounting textiles often seen in paintings. Soon after, the colour purple became more and more dominant in prints, from colouring the clothes of figures to filling entire backgrounds. Furthermore, following the introduction of red synthetic dye from France, the subjects and the aesthetic expressions in Japanese prints underwent a dramatic change. The changes in aesthetic tastes reflected bigger cultural, social and economic transformations during the process of modernization in Japan.

What excites me about this project are the elements of conservation science and the global aspect of Japanese art. The experience of learning about conservation science at the Bard Graduate Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened up a new perspective for me to rethink about images and objects. Conservation science’s emphasis on considering the past, present and future lives of the objects has made me become more conscious of the multiple layers underneath the surface of objects and how objects have come to look like as they are today.

However, the results of scientific analysis are just part of a bigger story. Tracing various colorants used in Japanese prints reveals a global history of art and economics, in contrast with the general perception that ukiyo-e only reflected traditional Japanese lives and cultures. For instance, Japanese printers would mix safflowers and cochineal to make the color red, which became possible due to the global trade network, through which cochineal from Mexico or Peru became accessible to Japanese dyers and printers. From this perspective, my project engages with global color studies, which has drawn scholars from diverse disciplines in science, social studies and humanities, to investigate related issues from the ancient to the contemporary periods. In Japan, like other countries, making colors involves a complex web of knowledge, labor and capital. Therefore, the value of colors is beyond the aesthetics; colors also implicate one’s religious, political, and social stances. In addition, Japanese people are sensitive to colors, which can express their nuanced sensibilities of feelings. Through this project, I aim to explore the material culture of late 19th century Japan with interdisciplinary approaches to art history, technical art history and conservation science.

After years of living in metropolitan cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Tokyo, I find Norwich to be a charming historical city, great for writing. Working in Norwich has been wonderful, quiet enough for sustained, concentrated thought while providing me a fine intellectual community and academic resources.

This year I plan to examine the collection from the British Museum, learn about conservation ethics in the UK and organise an international symposium. Scheduled in July 2018, this symposium is a collaborative project between SISJAC and the Worcester Art Museum in the US. This symposium will bring together a group of specialists in Japanese prints and textiles to examine the underlying aspect of Japanese culture: the quest for colours. Specifically, it will explore what fashion meant for consumers in the 18th- and 19th-century Japan. As an extension of the symposium in 2018, Worcester Art Museum will organise an exhibition, tentatively titled ‘Colour Revolution: Fashion and the Floating World.’ It is scheduled to open in Summer 2020 in conjunction with the Tokyo Olympics. New scholarship presented at the symposium will help shape the exhibition and be relayed to a large public audience in the U.S. The symposium will be free and open to the public, so if you are interested, please come to join us next summer.

Stephanie Su
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow 2017-18

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