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Part VI On Light in Museums in Japan

24. In Praise of Shadows: Ernest Fenollosa and the Origins of Japanese Museum Culture

Dorsey Kleitz and Sandra Lucore

© 2019 Dorsey Kleitz and Sandra Lucore, CC BY 4.0

We take as our starting point a metaphorical understanding of ‘darkness into light’ as it explains the historical situation of mid-nineteenth century Japan and as it highlights the seminal role played by Ernest Fenollosa, the Boston Orientalist and art historian, in promoting what Alice Tseng calls ‘the invented concept of Buddhist art’.1

Until Commodore Matthew Perry’s ‘black ships’ appeared on the eastern horizon in July 1853, Japan was, for all intents and purposes, closed to Western contact. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville famously refers to Japan as ‘that double-bolted land.’2 Indeed, the Japanese characters for this self-imposed isolation policy of sakoku initiated by the Tokugawa government in the 1630s literally mean ‘locked country’: 鎖国. Although during this period trade took place on a limited basis between Japan and the outside world, no Westerner could enter Japan nor could any Japanese leave, on penalty of death. There was no Grand Tour for travelers in search of Japanese art and culture, no Baedeker guide to advise on the delights and dangers of Kyoto and Nara. Indeed, until the Meiji era there was no museum and not even a Japanese word for ‘art’ as conceived in the West.

With the restoration of the emperor in 1868 Japan entered a chaotic period of rapid change. The old feudal system supported by what Van Wyck Brooks calls ‘thoroughly worm-eaten though externally lacquered and gilded pillars’ was abandoned.3 Japan’s fast-paced modernization was greatly influenced by the Western phenomenon of world’s fairs. Participation in these international expositions promoted official discussion of the role of Japanese art in shaping a new national identity. Intended to facilitate the growth of an international market, expositions were organized around a hierarchy of participating countries. The upper tier was composed of industrialized Western nations, while at the opposite end of the spectrum were their colonial possessions. In between these two extremes were independent nations that had more recently embarked on industrialization, including China and Japan, whose governments were faced with the problem of demonstrating at world’s fairs both modernization and an independent, indigenous identity. In Japan, government-sponsored expositions were also intended to encourage the growth of a viewing public.

From the 1860s the ambitious and pragmatic Japanese government recognized that Japanese arts and crafts could serve as an important way to attract Western interest and thus participation in world’s fairs increasingly highlighted Japanese crafts. Moreover, government desire to cultivate a Euro-American taste for Japanese arts and crafts had a profound impact on how these artifacts were conceptualized. During the Tokugawa period, Japanese arts and Japanese crafts had not been distinguished from each other; rather, painting, icon making, calligraphy, pottery, and lacquerware, were seen as fields of aesthetic production in their own right. The word for art, bijutsu, was coined during the Meiji period as a Japanese translation of the German term schöne Kunst (fine arts), which appeared in the entry rules formulated for the 1873 Vienna International Exposition clarifying the Western definition of art.4 Anything that did not fit this definition of art fell into the category of manufactures.

World’s fair politics dictated that non-Western countries were regularly invited to submit entries to the industrial and technological divisions but not the arts division, since so-called undeveloped countries were thought to be incapable of producing anything of sufficient quality. Having caught on quickly to this insult, the Japanese state set about rectifying the situation, calling for increased production of objects that would fit the Western concept of art. The dimensions of Japanese aesthetic production were redefined, in order to find a place within a Western context.

In 1877 Japan’s First International Industrial Exhibition was held in Tokyo. The centerpiece, the Fine Art Building, the first building in Japan to be called a bijutsukan and a precursor to today’s National Museum, attracted large crowds. Though gas streetlamps, which first appeared in Tokyo in 1874, were used in the grounds, the building’s interior, modeled on Western galleries, relied on natural illumination from above. A ukiyo-e triptych by the well-known artist Ando Hiroshige shows the main room of the Fine Art Building packed with Japanese and foreign visitors.5 The pictures, hung Western style in tiers from floor to ceiling, consist mostly of portraits, landscapes, and scenes from nature, several of which echo Hiroshige’s own work. Outside the open door a gas streetlamp visible in the distance reveals the development of Japanese lighting technology. In a country in thrall to fireworks since the early eighteenth century, the play of light and darkness was of great popular interest. Indeed, five years later electric arc lighting entranced pedestrians on the streets of Ginza and the 1907 Tokyo Industrial Exposition included a spectacular array of outdoor electric illuminations that inspired Natsume Soseki to write, ‘If there is even a spark of life in you and you seek evidence of that spark, look then, at the illumination — one cannot but be astounded by it. Those paralyzed by civilization have only to be astounded thus, to realize that they are indeed alive.’6

Buddhist icons proved particularly useful in the effort to define Japanese art because they offered a domestic form that matched Western notions of fine art in terms of genre (sculpture) and concept (religious) that sidestepped Western criticisms aimed at early Japanese efforts to make their art look Western. While the initial efforts of the Meiji government to promote the native Shinto religion at the expense of Buddhism were devastating to Buddhist sculptures and icon makers in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the desire to demonstrate their nation’s cultural achievements on the world stage resulted in a dramatic change of course. The anti-Buddhist destruction and disposal of temple treasures ceased. Government officials began to view Buddhist sculptures as part of a Japanese artistic heritage and initiated surveys of treasures in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that eventually led to the founding of art museums and state sponsored art education. Art that was initially promoted for its utilitarian and economic value was superseded by a notion of art as an expression of a universal ideal equally applicable to West and East. Ultimately, this change was reflected in institutional change: the government closed the Technical Art School and opened the Tokyo School of Fine Art in 1888, an institution that Ernest Fenollosa was instrumental in founding.

At this point Fenollosa had already been in Japan for nine years. Born in 1853 in Salem, Massachusetts, Fenollosa studied philosophy and fine arts at Harvard before being recruited by Edward S. Morse in 1878 to teach philosophy and political economics at the Imperial University in Tokyo. He quickly turned his attention to collecting and studying Japanese art, ultimately helping to establish not only the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, but also the Imperial Museum in 1888. The myth is that Fenollosa entered a void and singlehandedly saved Japanese art from widespread destruction in the rush to modernize. In the hyperbolic words of Frank Lloyd Wright describing the Meiji era:

Japan went into hysterical self-abnegation and began to destroy her beautiful works of art, casting them upon sacrificial bonfires: virtually throwing her civilization upon these fires as on a funeral pyre, a national form of that Hara-kari [sic]. A young American helped save many of the proofs of their great culture from this wanton destruction. His name was Ernest Fenollosa.7

The reality, however, is that Fenollosa arrived in Japan once the anti-Buddhist sentiment was on the wane, during a period of intense activity that aimed to preserve and promote the native artistic heritage. Fenollosa was not the first nineteenth-century Orientalist to ‘discover’ or ‘save’ Japanese art, but his preeminent position derived from the fact that he placed objects from the past in a context that gave meaning to contemporary concerns, as well as his efforts to establish the idea of art as an expression of cultural heritage. Remarkably, the general content and nature of Japanese art history that Fenollosa and his associate, Okakura Kakuzo, promoted has not changed significantly and continues to serve today as the prevailing narrative.8

Fenollosa’s philosophical basis of art developed from the American aesthetic movement, with its foundations in the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Jackson Jarves, and the English art critic John Ruskin. Although Fenollosa is sometimes called the Ruskin of Japan, because of his efforts to bring Japanese art out of obscurity and to the attention of a larger public both in Japan and in the West, in fact he blasted Ruskin for his emphasis on a materialistic, mimetic realism that denied the emotional and spiritual nature that according to Fenollosa gave meaning to art: ‘And did God create only the material world, and not also the human soul?’.9 As Fenollosa’s ideas about Japanese art developed, he identified three key characteristics: line, color, and notan. Fenollosa’s appreciation of Japanese art foregrounds the concept of notan, the harmony between darkness and light, harmony he believed was key to art’s emotional and spiritual nature. In the 1890s, when Fenollosa was curator of oriental art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he was befriended by the artist and art educator, Arthur Wesley Dow, who was fascinated by the collection of ukiyo-e at the museum. Fenollosa introduced Dow to Japanese aesthetics, including the idea of notan that subsequently became one of the cornerstones of his popular teaching manual, Composition, which influenced a generation of modern American artists who carried his ideas into abstract art. Different from the Western artistic principle of chiaroscuro, notan conveys the idea of abstract harmony-building rather than portraying the effects of lighting on an object. In the words of the Japanese novelist, Tanizaki Junichiro: ‘Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides’.10 For Fenollosa the art historian, then, Japanese art in itself was less important than what it had to teach about the nature of art in general.

Armed with imperial permission, Fenollosa and Okakura contributed to a comprehensive inventory of the Japanese treasures in temples and shrines that were suitable for preservation and display. The transmutation of Buddhist treasures from a lived past to a past that informs the present can best be illustrated through Fenollosa and Okakura’s unwrapping in 1884 of the famous Guze Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, at Horyuji temple in Nara.11 Fenollosa describes the event in detail:

I had credentials from the central government which enabled me to requisition the opening of godowns and shrines. The central space of the octagonal Yumedono was occupied by a great closed shrine, which ascended like a pillar towards the apex. The priests of the Horiuji confessed that […] it had not been opened for more than two hundred years. On fire with the prospect of such a unique treasure, we urged the priests to open it by every argument at our command. They resisted long alleging that in punishment for the sacrilege an earthquake might well destroy the temple. Finally we prevailed, and I shall never forget our feelings as the long disused key rattled in the rusty lock. Within the shrine appeared a tall mass closely wrapped about in swathing bands of cotton cloth, upon which the dust of ages had gathered. It was no light task to unwrap the contents, some 500 yards of cloth having been used, and our eyes and nostrils were in danger of being choked with the pungent dust. […] But it was the aesthetic wonders of this work that attracted us most. From the front the figure is not quite so noble, but seen in profile it seemed to rise to the height of archaic Greek art. […] But the finest feature was the profile view of the head, with its sharp Han nose, its straight clear forehead, and its rather large — almost negroid — lips, on which a quiet mysterious smile played, not unlike da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s. Recalling the archaic stiffness of Egyptian Art at its finest, it appeared still finer in the sharpness and individuality of the cutting. In slimness it was like a Gothic statue from Amiens, but far more peaceful and unified in its single systems of lines.12

Here Fenollosa is the authority, the art expert, battling against the anachronistic priests to bring the Guze Kannon from the darkness and shadows of the Yumedono (Hall of Dreams) to the daylight reality of nineteenth-century Meiji Japan. For the priests, the significance of the Kannon is in the religious meaning of the place, not the statue itself, in the harmonious synthesis of the two. By contrast, Fenollosa’s Kannon is meaningful here largely as an artifact. He compares it to archaic Greek sculpture, notes the similarity to Chinese art, links its smile to the Monna Lisa, its stiffness to Egyptian traditions, and its slender beauty to French Gothic cathedral sculpture in a conscious effort to bring the statue into the mainstream of Western art historical discourse. Art of course is not Western in origin, but collecting, cataloguing, and displaying is. The event highlights Fenollosa’s key contribution to Japanese art: not ‘discovering’ it, but making it conscious of itself by putting it into a larger context.

The consequent inevitable loss of its original context, and the transformation of Japanese art into a new idiom, is immediately reflected in Fenollosa’s domestic environment. Photographs of Fenollosa’s Tokyo residence show a typical Victorian interior crowded with Western-style heavy drapery and over-stuffed furniture.13 On closer inspection, however, the room is chockablock with Japanese wall-hangings, sculptures, and artifacts many of which ended up in collections in the United States, notably the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and The Freer Gallery of Art.

In 1933 Tanizaki Junichiro, one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century novelists, published In Praise of Shadows, a meditation on traditional Japanese aesthetics. Sometimes viewed as tongue-in-cheek because of its quirky appreciation of Japanese toilets, In Praise of Shadows is in fact a paean to a distinctly Japanese love of understated nuance, everything softened by shadow and the patina of age. Born in Tokyo in 1886, when Fenollosa was at the height of his collecting activity and influence, Tanizaki experienced firsthand the Meiji Era world of opposites, embracing Western ways in his early life before abruptly moving to Kyoto and turning to traditional Japanese culture in his later life.

In In Praise of Shadows Tanizaki criticizes the functional, over-illuminated harshness of the West in nostalgic response to what had been lost in the rush to modernize. The beauty of a Japanese room, he claims, relies on the play of shadows, dark shadows and light shadows:

Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. […] Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove [tokonoma], and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement. But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows. We value a scroll above all for the way it blends with the walls of the alcove, and thus we consider the mounting quite as important as the calligraphy or painting. Even the greatest masterpiece will lose its worth as a scroll if it fails to blend with the alcove, while a work of no particular distinction may blend beautifully with the room and set off to unexpected advantage both itself and its surroundings. Wherein lies the power of otherwise ordinary work to produce such an effect? Most often the paper, the ink, the fabric of the mounting will possess a certain look of antiquity, and this look of antiquity will strike just the right balance with the darkness of the alcove and room […] We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.14

Tanizaki concludes his essay:

We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent.[…] But the Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.15

The idea of notan, the harmonizing effect of the interaction of light and shadow, in spite of the adoption of Western conventions remains an abiding aesthetic concept, especially in the contemporary display of Buddhist sculpture, the starting point of our discussion.

At the Japanese architect Taniguchi Yoshio’s Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, part of the Tokyo National Museum, Fenollosa’s Guze Kannon has, metaphorically speaking, been returned to the shadowy interior of the Yumedono. Taniguchi’s sleek modern design combined with the museum’s state of the art technology and particularly its lighting, by the well-known minimalist light designer Toyohisa Shozo, provides the perfect environment to elucidate the beauty and meaning of Buddhist icons to contemporary museum audiences.16 The understated traditional Japanese aesthetic is here seen in striking contrast to the Western expressionism of the dramatic lighting, which characterizes the display of Japanese Buddhist sculptures in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Here, the focal point of the dark sculpture room, Dainichi, Buddha of Infinite Illumination, seated on his lotus blossom, is brightly lit from several discrete points creating a complex experience of overlapping light and shadow.17 One wonders how Fenollosa would view this postmodern sensibility.

1 Alice Y. Tseng, The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan: Architecture and the Art of the Nation (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), p. 19.

2 Herman Melville, Moby Dick: Or The Whale (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001) p. 110.

3 Van Wyck Brooks, Fenollosa and his Circle (New York: Dutton, 1962), p. 4.

4 Noriko Aso, Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 31.

5 For Hiroshige’s triptych see (it is the middle image on the right-hand side).

6 Natsume Soseki, quoted in Miya Elise Mizuta, ‘Tokyo’ in Sandy Isenstadt, Margaret Maile Petty, and Dietrich Neumann (eds.), Cities of Light: Two Centuries of Urban Illumination (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 109–14 (p. 111).

7 Kevin Nute, Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan (London: Chapman & Hall, 1993), p. 76.

8 Stefan Tanaka, New Times in Modern Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 102.

9 Ernest Fenollosa, ‘The Nature of Fine Art’, in Kevin Nute, Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan (London: Chapman & Hall, 1993), Appendix E, p. 202.

10 Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (Sedgwick: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), p. 30.

11 For an illustration of the Guze Kannon see

12 Ernest Fenollosa, Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1963), I, pp. 50–51.

14 Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, pp. 18–19, 30.

15 Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, p. 31.