Saturday, September 20, 2008

Keramic Art of Japan

Last year I came across this book Keramic Art of Japan in our art library, and I've been more or less obsessed with it ever since. It was published in England in 1875, and it's basically an illustrated catalog of Japanese ceramics in various public and private collections. But the illustrations! In addition to photographs and photolithographs, it has the most extraordinary chromolithographs I've ever seen in person. They were done by a French firm and each image required a whole series of hand-drawn lithographic stones, one for each color and shade. They are so detailed, so colorful, so three-dimensional and yet so flat: their quality is almost magical.

This semester I'm finally getting to indulge my interest in Keramic Art of Japn by using it as the object of my final project for my class on "Dimensions of Material Culture." This will force me to look at the book as a material object: its size, bindings, printing, typography, etc., everything that isn't its text or its images. As an added bonus, I'm also giving a preliminary presentation on Keramic Art at a research colloquium on "Photography and the Technologies of Empire and Race" that's part of a Visual Culture Center conference here at UW-Madison. So I'll get to talk both about how all the images (even the chromolithographs) make use of photography, and how the book relates to England's imperialist attitudes towards Japan in the late-nineteenth century.

It's these later aspects--how the book uses mimetic technologies like photography and chromolithography, and how the book relates to Japonisme as a colonial discourse--that make me interested in using Keramic Art of Japan as a focus for my MA paper next semester. Specifically I want to compare what's going on in Keramic Art with the ways in which Japanese people were mimetically copied and mimicked by the English in popular illustrations and plays like Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado (as I discussed in my presentation for UCLA's Graduate Symposium on the Remnant). I have a hunch that one of the reasons Japonisme is under theorized in the scholarly literature is that Japonisme is thought to have been about decorative arts rather than figural representations. Even in my own department, with its emphases on material and visual culture, vases and parasols just don't register as having the same political consequences as images of people. Leaving aside that this plays right into nineteenth-century ideas of Japanese art as "merely" decorative, I hope that by looking at representations of Japanese people and objects in tandem I can demonstrate how they were unforunately equated.