Exhibition | Picturing Place in Japan
For more than a millennium, the representation of place has been a dominant subject of Japanese picture-making in painting, woodblock prints, book illustrations, and photography. Sometimes pictures evoke the topography of an actual location, suggesting an artist’s observation on-site, but more often the place depicted is imagined or based primarily on pictorial precedent. Across the Japanese archipelago, beautiful sites extolled in ancient poetry, centers of sacred worship, and other new locations inspired painters and printmakers to create a seemingly infinite catalogue of Japanese place.
Featuring a special selection of works on loan from the renowned Gitter-Yelen Collection (also known as the Manyo’an Collection) of Dr. Kurt A. Gitter and Alice Yelen Gitter, along with works from the Art Museum and Marquand Library, Picturing Place in Japan is curated by Andrew M. Watsky, professor of Japanese Art and Archaeology, and Caitlin Karyadi, doctoral candidate at Princeton University, with Cary Liu, Nancy and Peter Lee Curator of Asian Art at the Art Museum. The exhibition focuses on Japanese representations of place from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Three long-standing traditions of place in the visual arts form the core of the exhibition: “imagined places,” “famous places,” and “sacred places,” ending with a selection of recent photographs that memorialize the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011.
What is commonly translated today as “landscape” was known as “mountains and water” (sansui 山水) in Japanese painting tradition. This genre offered painters a means of experimenting with brushwork through various motifs including rocks, trees, flowers, buildings, and people—in addition to mountains and water. To create pictures of “imagined places,” artists worked not from firsthand experience of the depicted locations but from their study of preexisting pictures and their own mind’s eye. In a rare image of a Japanese painter at work, Tachihara Kyōsho shows an artist indoors, painting from memory—memories of places he perhaps visited or, more likely, memories of paintings he had seen, studied, and painted before. Many sansui pictures referenced places in distant China, long admired in Japan as a source of cultural legitimacy. Unable to visit the continent themselves, Japanese painters borrowed the motifs and brush idioms of Chinese landscape painting to make their own creations. Thus, Japanese artists internalized centuries of painting practice and created their own interpretations of an imagined China.
In contrast to the conjured grandeur of “imagined places,” the tradition of “famous places” celebrates the more tangible beauty of specific landmarks. Japan was full of what were known as “famous places” (meisho 名所), sites that were extolled for a particular topographic feature, for their seasonal appeal, or for an event that had transpired there. In most instances that fame had registered first in Japan’s highest art form, poetry, and was then taken up by visual artists. Such was the case with Japan’s most famous place: Mount Fuji. Renowned Kyoto painter Ike no Taiga (1723–1776) depicted Fuji numerous times throughout his career, relying on firsthand experience, and later, on memory. In an abbreviated presentation of Fuji, Taiga uses both ink and negative space to portray the snow-capped mountain and enshrouding mist. In the nineteenth century “famous places” also became the subject of mass-produced color woodblock prints—including prints by masters such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)—making pictures affordable for an ever-broader audience.
The gods manifested far and wide throughout Japan, their sites of worship forming a web of countless “sacred places” (reijō 霊場). Pictures of sacred places highlight the intersection of place and spirituality, given that one of the primary motivations for travel in premodern Japan was religious pilgrimage to hallowed sites and venerated temples. The enormous bird’s-eye view painting of Nachi Shrine captures the extensive natural and built environment of one of Japan’s foremost sacred sites. Teeming with men and women from across Japan’s social spectrum, this lively painting was a visual aid for temple storytellers who enthralled pilgrims with astounding tales of the shrine.
The exhibition concludes with photographs made in response to the 2011 disaster in northeastern Japan. The massive earthquake, followed by its devastating tsunami and the ensuing nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, created a new focus for picture-making that was specific to place and deserving of compassion. Through their pictures of raw destruction as well as remembrance and regeneration, photographers have sought to capture the shattering impact to the Tōhoku region as well as Japan at large.
In conjunction with Picturing Place in Japan, works by many of the same masters will be displayed in the galleries of Asian art. Made possible by recent acquisitions from the Gitter-Yelen Collection, the focused installation In the Making: The Practice of Painting in Early Modern Kyoto explores the processes, innovations, and shared personal connections of painters in and around eighteenth-century Kyoto. Combined, these two exhibitions offer greater insight into the creative approaches of premodern Japanese painters as well as the significance of their selected subject matter.
Ph.D. candidate, Art & Archaeology
Picturing Place in Japan is made possible by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, Fund for Asian Art; the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, Princeton University; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum.