Fall 2014: Word and Image in Japanese Art

9 Jan

anthology of poems by 36 poets decorated paper

Anthology of Poems by 36 Poets: Mitsune shu (Right Side). Heian period, 12th c. (ca. 1112). 20.0 x 15.7 cm. Originally 38 books. In the collection of the Honganji Temple, Kyoto, and considered a National Treasure.

Now that I’m officially an Honors Art History major at Swarthmore, I take Honors seminars to prepare for my degree. I have to take three in Art History to complete my degree. One of the seminars I took was Word and Image in Japanese Art last semester. Before this class, the most exposure to Asian art, let alone Japanese art, I had was in summary in the AP Art History class I took in high school. I was excited for the class not because the subject matter was my absolute favorite, but because I knew I was destined to learn quite a lot. The class was great, and was quite challenging to me in that it forced me to look at art with entirely different focuses and goals in mind. The specific theme of the class was how word and image interacted together in a unique way in Japanese art, and that added a whole other dimension of studying the art that does not exist in Western art history. In Japanese art, calligraphy is an art form in and of itself, and it was a serious element to consider in each of the paintings we looked at. The format of the paintings we looked at was also different from what one might be used to in a Western art history class. Instead of studying paintings on canvas or wood, where the surface on which the artwork is painted is completely covered up and almost inconsequential (typically for pre-modern art), in this class we studied paintings on folded screens (which were sometimes taller than people), hanging screens, folded scrolls where sections were revealed incrementally, and on decorated paper. These formats were carefully considered as much as the content of the painting itself.

This was an interesting trend I noticed about the class discussions in how they differed from Western art history classes. The content of the paintings we studied never quite felt like the most important component to understand the artwork and its place in Japan’s art history. That never felt like the focus of our discussions. Instead, the format used for the painting, the poem or text it may have illustrated, its paper decoration, all felt as if they were more important that the painting itself. In other words, it seemed to me as if artworks were considered more of a masterpiece of craft and the product of several workshops, rather than the way they are considered in Western art where the focus is on the artist and his/her depiction of a story or person or subject.

So it was no surprise that the artwork we had to study and research for our final paper would not be approached in the same way we would in a Western art history class. Each person in the class chose a folding screen that depicted one or two chapters of the Tale of Genji, an 11th century novel written by Murasaki Shikibue. Considered to be the most famous Japanese novel, and perhaps even the world’s first novel, the Tale of Genji was incredibly important to Japan’s cultural history. It was illustrated for centuries after it was written; there are even graphic novel versions of the tale. For my final paper, I wrote about a screen in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection that depicts chapters 33 and 35 of the tale. The link is here: Tale of Genji Final Paper

After this post, we will be up to date with my coursework. So tomorrow I will have a painting of the day and discuss some of the ideas I have for the blog next year.

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