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Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures: Report on a Research Trip to Amsterdam

Following their previous visit to Paris in the spring, the group of young scholars involved in the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures Project embarked on their second research trip to Amsterdam from 14th – 17th  June. Dr Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer, Lecturer in Japanese Arts, Cultures, and Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute, organised and led the trip. The participants included Ishibashi fellows Wei Sun, Nanaka Kishi, Kimihiko Nakamura, Emily Lawhead, and the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer, Yuhan Ji. This trip is another step in the project team’s journey to uncover the extensive yet overlooked archival materials related to Japanese artists who were active in the European art scene during the three decades following World War II. The four-day trip was filled with wonders, as it unveiled a treasure trove of materials during visits to institutions like the Stedelijk Museum and the Amsterdam City Archives. These discoveries firmly positioned Amsterdam as an alternative hub for postwar Japanese art in Europe. The trip concluded with the fellows’ participation in the Young Scholars’ Symposium in Asian Art, hosted by the Royal Society of Asian Art in the Netherlands (KVVAK). In this article, the Ishibashi fellows share their reflections and insights gathered from this research trip.

Kimihiko Nakamura:

“Currently I am researching the painter-calligrapher Shinoda Tōkō (1913–2021). Shinoda had a close relationship with the Netherlands. Her work was featured in the exhibition Traditie en vernieuwing in de Japanse kunst (Tradition and innovation in Japanese art) at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in 1959, together with Hidai Nankoku (1912–1999), Munakata Shikō (1903–1975) and the Edo-period Zen monk-calligrapher Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768). After the exhibition, Shinoda (Izumi, 1959) and Hidai’s (Work no. 30, 1956) works were added to the museum’s collection.

During my research trip, I visited the Kröller-Müller Museum and looked at the archive relating to this exhibition. In addition to correspondence between A. M. Hammacher (1897–2002), then director of the museum, and the participating artists, the archive contains various documents, including a request for sponsorship to the Yomiuri Newspaper. As for Shinoda, a number of interesting documents were discovered, including a request from the Yomiuri for a letter of invitation for Shinoda to visit the Netherlands (although she did not visit the country after all), and correspondence between the Kröller-Müller Museum and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, informing that Shinoda’s works were promptly transferred to Belgium because she was scheduled to hold a solo show immediately after the Kröller-Müller exhibition. These documents illustrate the little-known but strong ties between Shinoda and Europe in the 1950s.

During my visit to the Kröller-Müller Museum, Isabelle Bisseling, the researcher at the Department of Collection and Research, was kind enough to inform me about the files outside of this exhibition and let me look through them as well. Those files included: Sekine Nobuo’s artist file containing documents related to his 1978 solo show; the box of files related to the group exhibition IKIRO / Be Alive, held in 2001, featuring the work of eighteen contemporary Japanese artists. In addition, I was able to see the vast amount of material on Van Gogh’s loans in Japan. Although they would be beyond the scope of this Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures project, they would be a valuable source for considering cultural exchange between the Netherlands and Japan in the postwar period.”

Ishibashi fellow Kimihiko Nakamura presenting at the Young Scholar’s Symposium hosted in the Rijksmuseum.

Emily Lawhead:

“I am excited to be working with the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures for the second time – first as an Ishibashi Foundation Summer Fellow (2018) and now as an Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures Scholar. I am currently the Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City and am interested in Japanese American artists who experienced internment and continued to work internationally in the postwar landscape. In Amsterdam, I was researching the work and exhibition history of Tajiri Shinkichi (1923-2009), a fascinating artist who was born in California (nissei), interned at Poston Relocation Camp in Arizona, volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was gravely wounded in Italy, documented the liberation of concentration camps in Germany, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, worked in Isamu Noguchi’s (1904-1988) studio, and relocated to the Netherlands for the remainder of his career. As an active participant in the avant-garde group CoBrA, Tajiri made a significant impact on the development of postwar art in Northern Europe. I had the opportunity to look through exhibition catalogues and correspondence archives for two Tajiri exhibitions held at the Stedelijk Museum: Tajiri Sculptures (2 March – 2 April 1960) and 101 daguerreogypieën van Tajiri (13 November – 19 December 1976). I was also able to study Tajiri sculptures on display at the CoBrA Museum voor Moderne Kunst, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. With my proximity to Japanese internment camps in the American West, I look forward to ongoing research into Tajiri and other incredible artists who were victims of this dark history and continued to realize prolific international artistic careers.”

Inside the Amsterdam City Archives

Wei Sun:

“When strolling through Amsterdam, one might encounter photographic reproductions of Yoko Ono and John Lenon’s iconic ‘Bed-ins for Peace’ protest at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel (1969). If you have been to the Stedelijk Museum, maybe you know that Kusama Yayoi’s spatial installation Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963) now engulfs an entire exhibition room.

The exchange between Japan and the Netherlands has left some traces in Amsterdam. With a group of passionate researchers, I discovered some objects documenting the early activities of Dutch traders in Dejima in the Rijksmuseum collection. In the library and archives of the Stedelijk Museum, we studied documents related to the Nul exhibitions (1962 and 1965), showcasing the works of Kusama Yayoi and some artists from the Gutai group.

As the focus of my PhD project centres on Japanese art exhibitions in Western Europe in the post-war period and the interplay between European and Japanese artists during this era, I was delighted to learn about Amsterdam’s lesser-known place in Japanese art history. During the research trip, I also went to the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague. The RDK has the Netherlands’ most prominent art historical library. In their archives collection, I discovered the Henk Peeters archives, which house his correspondence with Kusama Yayoi. Another surprising discovery was the archives of Art & Project, including documents related to Matsuzawa Yutaka, who sold one square meter of land to Dutch artist Stanley Brown. This invaluable archival trip between Amsterdam and The Hague allowed me to construct a vivid narrative of Japan’s presence in the Netherlands. It broadened my perspective on Japanese art history in a global context.”

The Ishibashi fellows and Yuhan Ji conducted archival research in the Stedelijk Museum Library.

Nanaka Kishi:

“During the trip, our group had the opportunity to visit Stedelijk Museum Library and Stadsarchief Amsterdam (Amsterdam City Archives). We closely investigated the archival materials related to the exhibitions showcasing modern Japanese art held in Amsterdam from the 1950s to the 1970s.

At the Stedelijk Museum Library, I looked at an original catalogue of the exhibition, Van nature tot kunst (‘From Nature to Art’), which was held in 1960. This exhibition featured the works of Sōfū Teshigahara (1900-1979) alongside other international artists. As someone fascinated by avant-garde calligraphy, I was thrilled to find several photographs of Teshigahara’s calligraphic works and his interactions with a French sculptor, Étienne Martin (1913-1995). This sparked my interest in exploring further artistic exchanges that may have taken place as a consequence of these international exhibitions.

At the Amsterdam City Archives, we encountered valuable materials that are not included in their online database where most of the standard documents are digitised and available. These materials included newspaper clippings and photographic prints. Of particular interest were ten installation photographs from the exhibition, Japanese Kalligraphie (‘Japanese Calligraphy’), held at the Stedelijk Museum in 1955. By comparing them with digitised images we obtained from Stedelijk Museum Library, we found that the works depicted in both sets of photographs were identical but exhibited at different venues. Since this exhibition was a travelling show and the series of photographs did not provide dates or locations, further investigation would be needed to determine their origins.

Finally, this research trip equipped me with valuable insights into Amsterdam as an active and welcoming hub for introducing Japanese art from the immediate post-war period. It also highlighted the fact that post-war Japanese artists actively sought exhibition opportunities beyond Paris and New York, with Amsterdam being one such destination.”

This is the second research trip as part of the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures: Archives of Postwar Japanese Art in Europe Project. The outcomes of this research, primarily centred around the identified archives, will be transformed into interactive resources presented on the forthcoming Digital Japan website. We hope these resources will serve as valuable tools, disseminating knowledge publicly and offering a roadmap for researchers to contribute to the exploration of this important chapter in global art history in the 20th century.

Yuhan Ji, Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer at The Sainsbury Institute