Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies

caa.reviews Centennial Project

Lucy Oakley, Editor-in-Chief, caa.reviews (2008–11), Editorial Board (2006–8), and Council of Field Editors (Nineteenth-Century Art: 2004–8)

In celebration of the College Art Association’s 100th birthday, the caa.reviews editorial board presents the top “readers’ picks,” one for each year of publication since the journal’s origin online in September 1998. Each pick is accompanied by a brief description—illuminating the review’s contributions to, influence on, and place in the field—written by current and former members of the editorial board, Council of Field Editors, and editors-in-chief. To identify the most popular reviews, we used statistics from Google Analytics beginning in 2007, when they first became available for the site, through 2010. This enabled us to see the total number of hits on individual reviews over the course of three years. The editorial board chose this quantitative approach to the journal’s history in part to highlight a key difference between caa.reviews and CAA’s other two, print-based journals—we can track closely what our readers read and learn which reviews they are accessing.

Even though this statistical measurement doesn’t allow us to see what readers were choosing before 2007, the Google Analytics list is quite revealing. Earlier reviews have continued to be among the most popular, years after they first appeared online. Despite its early publication date, it

did not come as a complete surprise to learn that the review with the most hits by far (almost 7,000) is Quitman Eugene Phillips’s assessment of Timon Screech’s Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700–1820 from February 4, 2000. Holding a distant second place, with about 2,000 hits, is Monica McTigue’s review of several books on Installation art, published on February 6, 2006. Next on the list is Swati Chattopadhyay’s review of Kamil Khan Mumtaz’s Modernity and Tradition: Contemporary Architecture in Pakistan, published in 2001. These selections reveal the journal’s continuity while highlighting the diversity of its coverage across geographic and subject boundaries.

In presenting the caa.reviews Centennial Project, I’d like to thank not only my predecessors as editor-in-chief, Larry Silver and Rick Asher, as well as Sheryl Reiss, my designated successor, but also all past and current editorial-board members, field editors, and CAA staff members whose hard work and dedication to the journal over the years have made its publication possible. Last but not least, we are all deeply grateful to the hundreds of reviewers whose careful readings and lucid analyses have made perusing caa.reviews so richly rewarding, and whose inspired contributions have sparked readers to return for more, again and again.

Happy Birthday, CAA, with many thanks to you, our readers!


2005

Sheryl E. Reiss, Editor Designate (2010–11), Editorial Board (2001–4), and Council of Field Editors (Early Modern and Southern European Art: 1998–2004)

In recent years, one of the most significant developments in the study of early modern art has been increased interest in global encounters and cross-cultural interchange. Timon Screech’s consideration of Hiroko Johnson’s Western Influence on Japanese Art, the most widely read review of 2005, provides a detailed assessment of the book and introduces readers unfamiliar with the topic to a fascinating instance of exchange between Europe and Asia. Screech is a noted authority on visual culture in early modern Japan and the author of seminal studies such as Lens within the Heart: The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), as well as Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700–1820 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‛i Press, 1999; 2nd edition, 2009), which was the subject of the most popular book review ever published in caa.reviews.

As Screech points out, Johnson’s book was the first English-language monograph on a group of late eighteenth-century elites from the Akita han (state) of Japan who sought to integrate elements of early modern Western art such as perspective, three-dimensional modeling, reflections, and anatomical study with indigenous Japanese practice. The young men from the daimyo class who founded this short-lived group (referred to as a “school” by Johnson) looked specifically to Dutch art for inspiration; this Dutch-influenced style of painting is known as ranga. Of particular importance to the Akita group were Dutch illustrated books.

In his review, Screech first outlines the historical circumstances that led to the formation of the Akita ranga “school,” then summarizes the chapters, paying particular attention to chapter 2, which concerns the impact of European anatomy books. In addition to pointing out some errors and bibliographic lacunae, Screech does fault some of Johnson’s conclusions and suggests that the author tends to avoid “issues that art historians engage with today—about what ‘influence’ is, about competing visualities, or about how power shapes regimes of seeing.” In a balanced and very informative review, Screech tells us much both about this volume and, more generally, about a significant—if fleeting—moment of early modern cross-cultural interchange.

December 15, 2005
Hiroko Johnson
Boston: Hotei Publishing, 2005. 176 pp.; 57 ills. Cloth $116.00 (9074822649)
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Hiroko Johnson has produced the first English-language monograph on the small group of elite men from Akita who, in the free and open days of Tanuma Okitsugu’s period as shogunal chief counselor, embarked on the challenge of integrating Western art practice into that of Japan. Her book is beautifully produced, with the lavish use of photographs and plates associated with Hotei Publishing. Johnson tells the story thoughtfully and intelligently, and even those who consider themselves informed on the subject will still find a great deal of new information here. Johnson has gone through all available publications, and examined all the works concerned. Regrettably, even in a volume as nicely illustrated as this, many works referred to are not reproduced, and often the ones that are will be known already.

Johnson calls the Akita group an “art school,” although she admits from the outset that it was not so at all. The three main members of this ranga (Dutch-style painting) group were Satake Yoshiatsu (studio name, Shozan; 174885), daimyo of Akita; his cousin, Satake Yoshimi (17491800), daimyo of the Akita sub-domain of Kakunodate; and Yoshimi’s retainer Odano Naotake (174980). All were in their twenties at the time. The han (state) of Akita was fiercely proud, and it seems unlikely that the group saw any “national” (i.e., archipelago-wide) ambitions to their activities, as Johnson has it. But the desultory economy of Akita was certainly on their minds. This was the period when rangaku (Dutch studies), fostered by Okitsugu, was being explored to assist in agronomy, mining, and shipwrighting. The Akita group painted to replicate the European idiom, using horizons, perspective, shading, and reflections; yet their aim was not to use these novelties to be merely exotic, but to reinvigorate established genres and themes.

The Akita project dissolved after only a few years owing to the death of Hiraga Gennai, mentor to the group, in 1779, and of Naotake (Gennai’s lodger and, some have fantasized, his lover) the following year. Yoshiatsu lived until 1785, the same year he met the Dutch entourage on their annual trip to Edo (an important fact omitted from Johnson’s book), although he died just ten days later. Yoshimi lived until 1800, but he was more peripheral. A first step toward the Meiji Restoration this was not. After the internationalization that was rangaku, things took a step backwards.

Johnson has chapters on several aspects of the Akita group. After introducing the characters, she discusses the production of “Japan’s first translated anatomy book” (43) in Chapter 2; Chapter 3 periodizes extant paintings. Chapter 4 discusses the influence of Noël-Antoine Pluche’s Schouwtoneel der Natuur (Spectacle of Nature), a hugely popular early eighteenth-century book (published in Amsterdam) that went through many editions, but whose role in Japan has been neglected until now in favor of the grander Groot Schilderboek of Gérard de Lairesse. Johnson shows not only that Pluche’s book was in Japan (which was known already, since Gennai records owning it), and that many of its images were borrowed (which would not be a particularly revealing discovery), but rather that its structure informed Yoshiatsu’s own sketchbooks—an important realization and one that highlights a core friction within ranga: the relative values of empiricism versus copying. While it is common knowledge that the Akita group viewed objects and sketched them—this was a rhetoric of shasei (sketching from life)— it is also known that they used imported books. How then was what they saw mediated and dictated by what they had viewed in books?

Perhaps the core moment when empiricism and copying were thrown into conflict came during the famous viewing of the autopsy of Aocha-baba in 1771. This is the stuff of Johnson’s second chapter. Three forward-thinking doctors (not of the Akita group, though soon to be linked to them) viewed a dissection for the first time. The previous year they had received an important European treatise, Caspar Bartholin’s Anatomia Nova, and an unimportant one, Johannes Kulmus’s Ontleegkindige Tafelen (Anatomical Plates), from the Dutch physician Ikarius Kotwijk (whom Johnson garbles as “Katijk”). The doctors looked from the body to the book, and expressed amazement at how realistic the pictures were. At least this is the narrative as first expounded decades later by one of the doctors present. But it is an arrant myth. European anatomical pictures of the period never look like actual autopsies. It was their purpose to explain, not to depict. Those who have viewed an autopsy (I assume Johnson has not) know they are very hard to master visually, and certainly impossible when viewed for the first time, especially when conducted without modern aids. Johnson goes on to explain that the three doctors, with other assistants, determined to translate Kulmus’s book (which was the shorter of the two), with Naotake enlisted to copy the pictures. This was eventually published in 1774 as the Kaitai Shinsho (New Anatomy—they applied Bartholin’s title to Kulmus’s text). This is said to be the “Japan’s first translated anatomy book.” True, Japanese textbooks always refer to it as such. In actuality, it was not so: the team only translated a portion of Kulmus (less than half), and they did not translate it into Japanese, but into academic pseudo-Chinese (kanbun). Moreover, it was not the first anatomy text to be translated in Japan. I make these points not to twit Johnson, for she has produced a superb study by which the English reader can learn the idées récus of Japanese scholarship, and she has found new information that fits a similar vein. But the text tends to shun issues that art historians engage with today—about what “influence” is, about competing visualities, or about how power shapes regimes of seeing.

Johnson’s decision to restrict herself to the Akita samurai group will be helpful for English-language readers who so far have had much more access to the chônin (commoner) side of the story, via Calvin French’s now-classic Shiba Kôkan (New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill) from 1974 (surprisingly not cited in Johnson’s bibliography). We therefore need to know how the two groups interacted. Johnson devotes some space to this, and holds that they worked together “harmoniously.” In support of this thesis, she reproduces a collaborative diptych by Yoshiatsu and Kôkan, which is a very interesting piece of data. But there is also evidence of vitriolic exchanges between the samurai and chônin collectivities, as has been investigated by Reinier Hesselink in “A Dutch New Year at the Shirandô Academy: 1 January 1795” (Monumenta Nipponica, 50, no. 2 (1995): 189234), whose work does not figure in Johnson’s bibliography either). The claim that Naotake produced megane-e (optical views) is offered to show how the samurai could engage with more popular media, but actually there is no evidence for his having done so, and Johnson can adduce only one very late claim and one image, which is a somewhat unlikely attribution.

The full story of this late eighteenth-century cultural encounter is exciting. It seemed to hold a heady promise, as heroic innovators battled to change their world. Johnson repeatedly talks of “courageous” acts. She is clearly a great enthusiast for ranga and its ideologies. Her book is a wonderful positivist story of progress towards the present. But everything suddenly came to naught. The abrupt, early deaths of the protagonists, one after the other, were a major problem. But there could have been successors; in certain cases, other artists were also adopting the manner. How Akita Ranga could disappear so completely needs to be addressed as much as how it suddenly rose to prominence. The wide picture (literally) is not provided here, and remains to be considered.

Finally, a few significant errors need to be duly noted: there was no “British” East India Company, and no country called “Britain” at the time that Johnson asserts; the English East India Company actually pre-dated the Dutch (or technically the “United”) one. Emperor Go-Mizunoo (r. 1611–29), who is perhaps the only Edo-period emperor whose name one really ought to know, appears as “Go-mizuo.” One cannot translate the Japanese term kapitan (head of the Dutch trading station) as “captain” (in English he is called “chief”).

Despite these objections, Johnson’s book will be useful to students of Japanese art history and especially of East/West relations in the Edo Period. She has also done a valuable service by translating in appendices Yoshiatsu’s two treatises on Western art. Hotei is to be congratulated too, for offering a book that is both beautifully produced and academically credible. Hotei can add this format to its new dissertation series, Academia Neerlandia. This is especially welcome when other presses are abandoning art history, or Asian studies, or both.

Timon Screech
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.