The Mead Art Museum opened up three new exhibits featuring Asian art on Friday, Feb. 5, marking the first time the Mead has ever simultaneously featured three Asian art exhibits. The exhibits are a collection of Japanese prints called “Nature, Pleasure, Myth: Animals in the Art of Japan,” an exhibit on 20th-century Japanese history in “Fifty Years of Showa Japan: The photography of Kageyama Koyo,” and a collection of miniatures in the exhibit “Gods, Kings, and Lovers: Paintings from Courtly India.”
The three curators of these three exhibitions briefly introduced their work to the approximately 50 members of the audience, including professors, students and other members of the Amherst community. The conjoined exhibition was not planned to be a historic event; the three were planned independently, but correlated their opening together, leading to a major event celebrating the Mead’s collection of Asian art.
The largest of the three exhibits is “Nature, Pleasure, Myth: Animals in the Art of Japan.” The exhibition grew from a seminar on Japanese prints headed by Bradley Bailey, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter postdoctoral curatorial teaching fellow in Japanese prints, whose appointment at the Mead two years ago was instigated with constant work with students in mind. In the seminar, students interacted with the Mead’s collection of prints in the Timothy Green collection, learn about the prints, their intricacies, and their place in the history of Japanese woodblock prints, and then curate an exhibition, deciding which prints would be featured, researching the backgrounds, writing the label text, and forming a booklet of essays about the prints. The blend turned out to create what Bailey described as “a class on curating an exhibition while also surveying the history of Japanese prints.”
While exhibitions are usually curated with experts at the helm, the difficulty of curating an exhibition with a seminar class lay with allowing students time the students to catch up to the existing scholarship on the material and then incorporating the ideas between the seven executors of the exhibition, including Bailey. In addition, the “Nature, Pleasure, Myth” was created in the span of a semester – which is extremely rushed in the world of curatorial exhibits. The broad topic of “animals in Japanese prints” still allowed differentiation in different topics, from animals used as designs in kabuki theater, to courtesan dress styles, to legends showing animals as dangerous villains.
All in all, the class and exhibition offer something that other classes cannot – practice in the field.
“Back in college, people would ask me, ‘What do you do with an art history degree?’” Bailey said. “But actually, it is the only humanities discipline that studies a commodity. With an art history degree, you can work at a museum, you could be an academic, you can work at an auction house, you can be an arts dealer, you can be an appraiser, you can be an educator – there are so many things to do that are directly related to the degree. It is a rare thing to have curatorial experience at the undergraduate level, even the graduate level. If we could have a year-long course doing the same thing, then exhibitions like this would be much more feasible as well as being an excellent practical supplement to the academic art history training we have now.”
The Mead will be showed Japanese erotic prints from the Green collection, held in conjunction with the exhibition “Nature, Pleasure, Myth” this Friday, Feb. 13, as a Valentine’s Day celebration of love.
The second exhibit focused on a later portion of Japanese history – the Showa period, or reign of Showa Emperor, Hirohito from 1926-1989, as seen by news photographer Kageyama Koyo. This impetus for the exhibit came from three sources: the interest of Samuel C. Morse, Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations, the generosity of an enthusiastic Amherst alumnus, Scott Nagle ’85, and the support of a son of Kageyama Koyo, Kageyama Tohiro.
The collection features photographs spanning this period, showing the development of Japan along with its glories and its falls – an artistic and informative view of the life of a country.
“Kageyama was a news photographer, but he somehow he was able to add more to the photograph,” Morse said. “He wrote extensive notes on the backs of each of his archival photographs. On the photograph of the women in beach pajama fashion, he would acknowledge that the Japanese were invading the Shandong peninsula at the same time. He was very conscious of the social context in which he was making these images and he was perfectly willing to write down this context and his own personal reaction.”
The result is a stunning exhibit that would not have been possible without the contributions of Scott Nagle ’85 and Kageyama Tohiro. While Nagle produced the funds for acquiring these pieces, Kageyama Tohiro’s generosity allowed the Mead to have newly-made prints from the original negatives. Such a collection currently makes Amherst’s collection of Kagayama prints the largest in the United States.
The third exhibition, “Gods, Kings, and Lovers: Paintings from Courtly India,” was curated by Yael Rice, Visiting Assistant Professor and Robert E. Keiter ‘57 Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Art and the History of Art, with assistance from Chen Jiang ‘15. Rice’s interest in these works sparked the whole idea.
“As soon as I moved into the area, I contacted the Mead to take a look at their Indian paintings,” she said. “There are dozens and dozens. From there I chose based on quality of execution, interest, historical value, where it was made, subject matter, etc.”
From these dozens, Rice ended up with nine pieces.
The prints are characterized by their minute details and pointillism. Guests at the reception on Feb. 5 leaned closer and closer and closer to the glass, trying to discern the tiny and intricate designs on the subjects’ robes without fogging up the museum glass. Rice said that, often, with these intricate objects, the naked eye cannot discern the intricacies that a digital format may easily give.
“Right now, lots of historians and librarians are experimenting with the digital image; not that it is replacing the experience with the object on display, but rather us to see the manuscript page in a way that the naked eye does not allow,” she said.
In addition, the exhibition features minerals on display that correspond with the various colors of the pigments used in the paintings. The minerals came on loan from the Beneski Museum of Natural History on campus and the Skinner Museum of Mount Holyoke College. The collaboration there, Rice said, was much easier than it might be at a larger institution.
“People in the sciences [at Amherst], I’ve found, are very willing to collaborate with their colleagues in the arts and humanities,” she said.
On Thursday, April 2, at 6:30 p.m., Rice and her assistant Jiang will be hosting a Gallery Talk at the Mead Art Museum for “Gods, Kings, and Lovers: Paintings from Country India.”