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

In late March, Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures fellows Kuniko Matsui, Matthew Hitchmough, Stefano Turina, Wei Sun and Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer, Yuhan Ji went on a research trip in Paris led by Sainsbury Institute Acting Director and Lecturer in Japanese Arts, Cultures, and Heritage, Dr Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer. This is one component of the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures project, where the aforementioned fellows explore Japanese arts in the post-war period in European museums, galleries and archives in a series of archival research trips, as well as through conversations with scholars and curators. The crossroad of east-west cultural exchange that was Paris in the 20th century, now offers a rich reservoir of materials that allowed the group to catch a glimpse of the world brimming with new forms of art in the dynamic period after WWII. In this article, the Ishibashi fellows share their experiences and takeaways from the trip:

“My PhD research concerns postwar nihonga (Japanese-style painting), its representation at the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition, or Nitten (Nihon Bijutsu Tenrankai), and its wider promotion by the Japanese state; I was gratified to discover a surprising wealth of materials relating to these topics at the archives we visited in Paris. At the Centre Pompidou’s Bibliothèque Kandinsky I was able to read through catalogues for exhibitions at Galerie Yoshii, one of the first commercial galleries to represent Nitten nihonga artists in Europe, and materials from Dōmoto Inshō’s (1891-1975) exhibitions in Paris. The Musée Cernuschi had a very extensive collection of materials from a 1958 Kodama Kibō (1898-1971) exhibition that was held at the museum—one of the first overseas exhibitions by a contemporary nihonga artist during the postwar era. It was fascinating to see how the museum had framed Kodama’s work, situating his practice squarely within the Kanō tradition even as Kodama was beginning to explore new frontiers in sumi-e inspired by his encounters in Europe. Correspondence contained in the museum’s archive from the Japanese ambassador to France, Furukaki Tetsurō (1900-1987), also provided excellent insight into the support given to Nitten nihonga artists by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during this period, as did correspondence I found at the Archives Nationales concerning a mooted Higashiyama Kaii (1908-1999) exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 1977. Every institution we visited was wonderfully obliging, and it was a very refreshing experience to be able to collaborate on archival research with other scholars for a change!”

Matthew Gabriel Hitchmough

Dr Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer and the Ishibashi fellows at the Centre Pompidou.

“Thanks to the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures project I had the opportunity to visit three important places for my PhD research, which focuses on artistic exchanges between Italy and Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. At the Bibliothèque Kandinsky I investigated not only the folders on Japanese artists who exhibited also in Italy, on whom I am conducting research – such as the members of the Gutai group, Imai Toshimitsu, Teshigahara Sōfū – but we also dig into some folders which housed materials on Parisian galleries connected with Japanese artists. At the Musée Cernuschi as a group we had the opportunity to see all the materials related to Japanese art exhibitions organised between 1945 and 1975: it was really useful in order to understand how a public institution like the Museé Cernuschi – opened in 1898, when Japonisme was at its height throughout Europe – was promoting after the Second World War Japanese arts in many forms (exhibiting not only painting and prints, but also contemporary calligraphy, kimono, ceramics, nihonga), thus stimulating interest in Japanese culture also among contemporary creators.

Another fundamental experience for me was the visit to Les Abattoirs, Musée – Frac Occitanie in Toulouse, which houses the archives of the Galerie Stadler. This gallery, founded by Rodolphe Stadler and advised by Michel Tapié for some years, exhibited during its long history (1955-1996) many Japanese artists connected with Tapié, such as Imai, Dōmoto Hisao, Dōmoto Inshō, Shiraga Kazuo; Tanaka Atsuko and the Gutai group. Although there are few written documents in the archive compared to the long activity of the gallery, the scrapbooks containing all the exhibition brochures and some newspaper clippings, together with the photographs of the opening of the exhibitions, offer the researcher the opportunity to find connections and reconstruct networks. In addition, some of the Japanese artists who have exhibited at Stadler are now represented in the museum’s collection with some of their works available on the Museum’s website for curious researchers.”

Stefano Turina

Les Abattoirs, Musée – Frac Occitanie in Toulouse.

“Apart from our group workshops, I have visited several institutions in and around Paris, amongst which was La Maison-Atelier Foujita – the house and atelier, where the Japanese-French artist Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (Fujita Tsuguharu) lived and used in his last years from 1960, is now open to the public as a small museum, housing more than 1,000 items including the painting materials, tools, photographs, drawings, paintings as well as the objects and furniture actually used by the artist on a daily basis. A tour by Ms Solène Sapience was quite informative, detailing how Foujita redesigned the interior decoration and the garden, made the furniture and everyday objects by himself, and kept his painting process secret from others (even his latest wife Kimiyo was not allowed to enter the atelier space). The house/atelier and an extensive amount of materials are primarily kept as left by the artist and his wife, shedding light on Foujita’s life and creative process especially of his later years. He was a great traveller and drew inspiration from different cultures, which is demonstrated by various objects he brought back from his trips in North/South America, Asia and Europe. The director and curator Ms Anne Le Diberder kindly showed me the newly discovered photos taken by Foujita during those trips and explained the museum’s effort to digitalise them for a wider public as well as the challenges to do so largely due to the copyright issues. Although many archival materials on Foujita are scattered in various places, mostly in Japan and some in France, visiting La Maison-Atelier Foujita was an invaluable opportunity for me to find out the various aspects of the artist, both personally and artistically, through the space and objects first-hand. Besides, an inspiration to me was the curators’ passionate and continuous efforts to preserve and research the materials and to seek ways to make them available for the public and researchers despite various challenges, which is certainly shared by our current project.”

Kuniko Matsui

Exterior of Maison-atelier Foujita, Essonne, France.

“Paris is a city that transcends time and space, offering an endless source of inspiration for artists, historians, and curious minds alike. As Hemingway aptly described, Paris is a moveable feast, brimming with rich cultural and historical significance. Beyond its legendary status in the art world, Paris is also a veritable treasure trove of archival materials, where art historians flock to uncover primary sources that shed light on the city’s rich history.

Together with a group of passionate young researchers, we explored the archives of the Kandinsky Library and the Museum Cernuschi. To my surprise, the archives were not the dusty, disorganized spaces that one might expect, but rather meticulously curated repositories of historical materials, carefully preserved in specialized boxes and environments with strict temperature and humidity controls.

My research focused on the fascinating relationship between Japanese art exhibitions and cultural diplomacy. I was fortunate enough to delve into the archives of the prestigious Centre Pompidou and the Diplomatic Archives of Foreign Affairs in La Courneuve. I was lucky to find out that the Pompidou archives held more than 20 boxes filled with materials related to the exhibition ‘Japon des avant-gardes: 1910-1970’. With the invaluable assistance of the archivist, who graciously guided me through my search, I gained a deeper understanding of the nature of archives. This experience not only deepened my knowledge of the subject matter but also gave me valuable insights into how to approach historical research and extract meaning from archival materials.”

Wei Sun

The spring visit to Paris was the first of several research trips the group will undertake as part of the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures project. They are looking forward to further developing this project in the following months and presenting their findings online in various digital formats, with the hope to share these precious experiences and some of the relatively unknown resources with a network of researchers as well as the wider public.

Matthew Gabriel Hitchmough, MA, PhD candidate in Japanese Arts at SOAS, London. Matthew’s current project focuses on post-war nihonga exhibitions in Japan and beyond.

Stefano Turina, MA, PhD candidate at the University of Turin, specialising in Japan-Italy cultural exchange. Stefano is also an independent curator with current projects on Italian-Japanese art connections in the post-war decades.

Kuniko Matsui, MA, Tokyo-based researcher of Japanese art with a current project on Suda Kokuta.

Wei Sun, MA, PhD Candidate in Asian and Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University. Wei’s current project focuses on art and diplomacy in post-war and contemporary Japan.

Yuhan Ji, MA, Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer at SISJAC.