Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 2018
Christopher Reed Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities Modernist Latitudes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 440 pp.; 126 b/w ills. Paperback $35.00 (9780231175753)

From its first pages, Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities asserts itself as a sophisticated, well-written, insightful, and important contribution to masculinity studies and studies of japonisme and East-West exchange. Christopher Reed guides his reader through a variety of spaces and times, including an examination of the Goncourt brothers and other japonistes in Paris in the late nineteenth century, Ernest Fenollosa and the circle of collectors and curators interested in Japan in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Boston, and Mark Tobey and his peers in Japan and Seattle in the 1940s and 1950s. This wide-ranging grouping is diverse in terms of aesthetic values, sexual identities, and cultural identities, yet Reed demonstrates that they shared an interest in Japan because “Japan allowed the unlearning—ignoring or subverting—of authoritative ‘truths’ in one’s home culture, creating a point of departure in an act of self-invention” (4). The book calls these cultural outsiders “bachelors” to supply an alternative to the term “queer,” which Reed argues is culturally anachronistic when applied to the early twentieth century. His term bachelor Japanists is capacious enough to include not only gay men (whether out or not) but also heterosexual women and avowedly heterosexual men within its compass. It also includes artists and collectors who experienced “a shared alienation from powerful cultural imperatives during the century historians call ‘the era of mandatory marriage’” (5).

The introduction is a concise overview of the book and would make a useful read for anyone interested in Orientalist studies or queer theory. Using his own archival research and a careful review of Orientalist studies, Reed takes on scholars whose writings police the epistemological boundaries of “authentic” Japan. We learn that although many scholars have dismissed the Japanists as simple Orientalists, they too played a role in Japan’s modernity, just as Japan played a role in navigating their sexual identity. Reed’s case studies deploy gender theory in new territory, resulting in an important reconsideration of Orientalism.

Chapter 1, “Originating Japanism: Fin-de-Siècle Paris,” grounds the book’s central argument about nonconformist sexual identity and the notion of Japan. Drawing on the homosocial networks of the Goncourts, it explores japonisme’s role in the formation of avant-gardism. Reed shows that for the Goncourt brothers, a taste for things “Japanese” was part of a “broader challenge to Western norms, both sexual and aesthetic” (47). A passage from the Goncourt brothers’ journal, written in 1863, seems to prove Reed’s point:

The other day I bought some Japanese albums of obscenities. This delights me, amuses me, and charms my eye. I see it as outside obscenity, which is there, and seems not to be there, and which I do not see, so much does it disappear into fantasy. The violence of the lines, the unexpectedness of the combinations, the arrangement of the accessories, the caprice in the poses and props, the picturesqueness, and, so to speak, the landscape of the genital parts. Looking at it, I think of Greek art, boredom imperfection, an art that will never cleanse itself of this crime: academicism (quoted in Reed, 46).

The chapter goes on to compare the Goncourt house with Henri Cernuschi’s house museum and Hugues Krafft’s Midori-no-sato building, revealing the multiplicity of ideals at work in Parisian japonisme.

The second chapter, “Bachelor Brahmins,” turns to the institutionalization of Japanism in Boston’s museum culture. Reed argues that the “Brahmin” culture of Boston, which was articulated through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, contested European superiority by laying claim to an elite, masculine version of Japan that Fenollosa, John La Farge, William Bigelow, and others saw typified in Noh theatre and Japanese feudal castles. Reed argues that Fenollosa’s fall from elite Boston social circles after his divorce and scandalous remarriage were “evidence of an undisciplined heterosexuality” unbefitting his social rank. Unlike those discussed in the previous chapter, these Japanists were less interested in the radical otherness of a Japanese aesthetic, and it is unclear to this reader if all members of the “Boston Brahmins” truly disrupted Western sexual norms to the degree that the Goncourts did (and that Reed claims) or whether they simply celebrated an authoritative homosocial privilege. Chapter 2 also includes important material on several important female bachelor Japanists, such as Madame Desoye, one of the first Japanists in Paris, as well as the Duchesse de Persigny and Isabella Stewart Gardner, which helps to redress the omission of women in most of the literature to date.

Chapter 3, “Sublimation and Eccentricity in the Art of Mark Tobey,” examines issues of Japanist regionalism, spiritualism, and national and queer identity through an engaging biographically structured essay on Tobey and his peers. The chapter reminds readers of Clement Greenberg’s powerful effect on the reception of Tobey’s work. Greenberg’s initial enthusiasm for Tobey in 1947 was quickly tempered by his concern about Tobey’s work being “under the influence of Oriental Art.” As Reed notes: “Ignoring Tobey’s consistently urban imagery, Greenberg complained that [his] art ‘does not show us enough of ourselves and the kind of life we live in our cities’’’ (267). In contrast, Greenberg praised Jackson Pollock’s work for “feeling . . . even more radically American,” and he continually worked to protect Pollock from the perception of influence of the “Orient” and the Northwest School by extension. Tobey, Mark Graves, and other Northwest artists became marginalized from the New York art scene. Reed’s analysis challenges the early dismissal of Tobey’s work and pointedly reveals Greenberg’s nationalistic motivations behind this dismissal. The inclusion of large, full-color illustrations of some of Tobey’s artworks, such as Flow of the Night (1943), might have done more to convince the reader of the need to reassess Tobey’s innovative and dynamic pieces. The chapter also examines Tobey’s influence on the work of John Cage, Bernard Leach, and Marsden Hartley and convincingly argues that Tobey used a notion of Japanese aesthetics “to supplant Western modes of thought and representation toward a specific concern with the artist’s relationship to the male body in its surroundings” (246).

Bachelor Japanists concludes with a critique of revisionist scholars who castigate Japanists like Fenollosa and the Goncourt brothers for misconstruing an “authentic” Japan. Reed rightly points out that those who seek to protect the purity of “the East” are already wading into a Western construction with a dubious moral high ground. He warns the reader against easy essentialisms about identity and authenticity, instead demonstrating the complicated relationships and artworks that unfolded through the involvement of Japanists across the globe.

Given Reed’s concern over the constructions of authenticity, one wonders about the book’s subtitle. If, as Reed asserts, this book is not about Japan, why then the reference to “Japanese Aesthetics?” Indeed, few Japanese artists are mentioned in the book, and when they are it is indirectly, through appraisals or devaluations of their work by Western collectors and artists. In the final chapter of Bachelor Japanists, Reed critiques Tobey’s apparent lack of concern for the Japanese-American internment (despite his deep interest in Japanese-style painting): “When Tobey painted E Pluribus Unum in 1942, his Asian-inflected celebration of American diversity registered the removal of Japanese-Americans only in their absence from the mix of Euro-American faces it depicted” (266). I also felt absences in Reed’s book. It is clear enough that the book focuses on the perception and reception of Japanese art, culture, and design by Westerners. But as a Japanese-Canadian art historian specializing in modern Japanese art, I find it strange that a book that has “Japanese Aesthetics” in the title does not engage, even indirectly, important scholarship or the visual material of Japanese modern art. A few quotes, images, or comments on Japanese artists or scholars may have added even greater complexity to the manuscript. This remark, however, does not change the fact that Bachelor Japanists truly achieves its own goals, encouraging us all to “think complexly and creatively about our own investments in otherness, attentive in both cautionary and celebratory ways to our own agency” (36), a feat few other books can boast. 

Namiko Kunimoto
Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art, Ohio State University