Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 6, 2019
Nancy E. Green and Christopher Reed, eds. JapanAmerica: Points of Contact, 1876–1970 Exh. cat. Ithaca, NY: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2016. 296 pp.; 246 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9781934260258)
Herbert E. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, August 27–December 18, 2016; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA, February 12–May 21, 2017
Installation view, JapanAmerica: Points of Contact, 1876–1970, Herbert E. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, August 27–December 18, 2016 (photograph © 2016, provided by Herbert E. Johnson Museum of Art)

In recent decades, specialists of both American and Japanese arts have turned their attention to the history of these two countries’ artistic interactions from the nineteenth century through the present. Scholars of Japan have also explored twentieth-century avant-garde Japanese arts. Concurrently, art history has increasingly expanded to embrace a field more aptly termed “visual culture studies,” which incorporates the analysis of mass-market commercial products. These efforts have resulted in fresh insights into the ways in which American and Japanese cultures have intersected through their visual materials. The exhibition catalogue reviewed here reflects these new scholarly directions. It enlarges upon the more limited scale of other recent catalogues such as Japan & Paris: Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and the Modern Era (Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2004) and the broader exploration of international expositions in Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 (Nelson-Atkins and Carnegie Museums of Art, 2012).

Distinguishing this catalogue is its inclusion of diverse media and its stress on the interactions between American artists and the Japanese arts and artists with whom they came into contact. As such, it offers a much-needed dual-sided overview of how this sharing of artistic ideas developed, especially in the post–World War II years, into new visions of global artistic modernity. The catalogue’s great contribution stems from its essays by prominent American and Japanese scholars who have published extensively, albeit separately, on their own sub-specialties and have included primary source materials from popular press accounts from which they quote to great effect.

The exhibition and its catalogue focus on Japanese arts and crafts exhibited at international expositions from the nineteenth century to 1970 and how Western makers responded to them. Although emphasis is on Japan’s participation in US expositions, also introduced are Japanese arts displayed in Montreal (1967), São Paulo (1951 and 1953), and Osaka (1970), which offers an opportunity to consider how the purpose of these international spectacles changed over time. Also explored is the impact of expositions on both the visitors, to whom the goods displayed were marketed, and artists—not only those whose works were featured in the fairs but also others who, afterward, created works in response to what they saw. In addressing these points, the catalogue authors contemplate the subtle and intertwined relationship of art, politics, modernization, and globalization.

The exhibition featured a diverse array of materials including paintings, sculptures, finely made Japanese and American crafts, and other mass-produced materials associated with the expositions such as souvenir trinkets, promotional posters, stereoscopic photographs, newsreel footage, illustrated books, and magazines that documented the fairs’ public reception. The extensive citations of documentary materials and analytical discussions in the essays place these objects, many presented in the catalogue with extended captions, within broader social and cultural contexts. The clearly defined, chronological, and thematic sections of the exhibition do not, however, correspond to the seven catalogue essays, which address many, but not all, of the topics introduced in the exhibition; nor are they reflected in the catalogue’s illustrated checklist, which devotes 158 pages to the 199 objects featured in the exhibition.

Nancy E. Green and Christopher Reed explain in the catalogue preface why they chose to take a “long view” of Japanese-American relations:

The century of Japanese-American relations covered by our exhibition includes some of the highest highs and lowest lows in global history. The reality, however, is that between those poles lie a myriad of moments of fascination, alienation, attraction, emulation, resistance, friendship, and showmanship, all embodied in the images and objects left to us from that era. (13)

The subsequent essays generally follow a chronological progression. Neil Harris’s “Made for Each Other: Japan at American World’s Fairs” focuses on international expositions up to World War I. He successfully ties Japanese representation at the fairs to current events. He explores, for example, Japan’s presence at the 1904 St. Louis fair in relation to its initial successes in the Russo-Japanese War, and he concludes that “anxiety about Japanese merchandising and consumerism combined with fears about the purity of the ‘other’ to reflect American anxieties about economics and race . . . [leading] to immigration restriction and widespread ‘Americanizing’ campaigns” (22).

Hina Hirayama’s essay, “Words and Objects in the Japan Craze in Boston, 1880–1900,” introduces three case studies: Edward Sylvester Morse’s denigration of Satsuma wares, the American Exhibition of Foreign Products in 1883–84, and the successful career of Boston-based art dealer Bunkio Matsuki. These “explore how differing opinions about Japanese objects informed consumers’ understanding—however incomplete—of their treasured Japanese wares” (27).

Green’s “A Fan with a Stork Flying Over: The Japanese Impact on American Aesthetics” introduces some of the many well-known “points of contact” that contributed to Japanese influence on diverse artists and art movements up to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. She mentions American artists’ European sojourns, artists’ encounters with Japan’s lavish displays at the Philadelphia and Chicago fairs, and the disseminating of ideas about Japanese design through art educators, particularly Arthur Wesley Dow and his disciples.

In “From Soft Power to Hard Sell: Japan at American Expositions, 1915–1965,” Alicia Volk describes how Japan’s participation at these fairs served as “a means of achieving the state’s evolving economic and geopolitical objectives” (66) and “as vehicles of cultural diplomacy” (66). She contrasts how in the prewar era “emphasis on presenting a ‘purely Japanese’ aesthetic masked and normalized Japan’s imperial ambitions” (69) with displays at the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair that emphasized new types of scientific and industrial materials. The strength of this essay derives from its copious citations of primary source materials and illustrations from period brochures and postcards that bring these events to life.

Reed’s “Aesthetic Diplomacy: ‘Creative Prints’ in the Postwar Era” discusses sosaku hanga (creative prints), which were first made in 1904 but only flourished from the early postwar years, as a case study “in the production and reception of Japanese modernism” (89). In this context, he presents a history of writings on the subject, introducing eminent Western collectors beginning with Oliver Statler and James Michener. He also shows that Japanese sosaku hanga artists exhibiting at the São Paulo art biennials in 1951 and 1953 did not merely produce popular imagery based on clichés about Asian philosophies (a perception that has caused them to be overlooked) but instead daringly participated in “modes of abstraction associated with international modernism” (99).

Continuing the discussion of Japanese modernism at expositions, Bert Winther-Tamaki’s essay, “Japanese Modernist Artists and Designers: At Expo 67 in Montreal,” assesses the accomplishments of five Japanese exhibitors at Montreal in the media of architecture (Yoshinobu Ashihara), interior design (Kappei Toyoguchi), ink abstraction (Tōkō Shinoda), sculpture (Sōfū Teshigahara), and calligraphy (Shiryū Morita). He notes that their works collectively demonstrate how Japanese “modernism characterized by abstraction, truth to materials, and imposing scale” (107) “incorporated culturally specific Japanese elements without compromising a forceful impression of modernity” (109) to express a vision that was “transnationally modern and distinctly Japanese” (117).

The final essay in the catalogue, Steve Ridgely’s “Past, Present, and Future at Expo 70,” shows how firmly Japan’s planning committee for this 1970 exposition looked toward the future by including in its committee a science fiction writer, an abstract artist, and professors who “recommended instantiating a new field of university study called Futurology (miraigaku)” (121). Avant-garde arts and television’s impact were felt in the displays, which included multi-projector films and the screening of the first large-scale IMAX film.

Although scholarly and insightful, the editors of the catalogue are not Japan specialists and errors resulted. For example, surnames in Japanese conventionally precede given names, but sometimes in recording the names of twentieth-century Japanese, especially artists who emigrated abroad or writers who published in English, the order is reversed; in the catalogue, however, this is inconsistent. Similarly, the nationality of Japanese artists who emigrated to the United States is sometimes mischaracterized: Chiura Obata, for example, became an American citizen but is listed as Japanese (153); while Yasuo Kunioshi, a contemporaneous emigrant who never became a citizen, is identified as “American, born Japan” (150–51). Additionally, the catalogue’s functionality as a reference resource is hampered by its lack of an index. Overall, although the catalogue essays only occasionally reference the exhibition objects, collectively they complement and contextualize them through discussions that highlight Japanese contributions to global ideas about modernism. 

Patricia Jane Graham
Adjunct Research Associate, University of Kansas, and independent Asian art consultant and appraiser