Last Saturday I was one of the selected students from AU to present papers at the Eighth Annual Graduate Student Symposium in the History of Art, put together jointly by American University and George Washington University. Held at GWU’s Smith Hall of Art this year, four students from each of the two schools presented talks from developed papers that they worked on in seminar classes. This year, American’s selected presenters were myself, Tiffany Meadows, Laura Phillips and Katie Boccard. We had a great turnout with an audience that was very interested in our various topics!
I presented a study of issues of formal style found in Japanese and American color woodblock prints. My topic came from one of my two “in-lieu-of-thesis” papers that I’m working on. It was developed out of Dr. Langa’s spring 2010 seminar on transnational influences in American art. The larger paper includes a study of European exchanges in the same woodblock medium, my argument being that an international style developed after the opening of Japan’s trade in 1853-1854 and culminated around the 1930s with extensive cross-cultural influences and artistic exchanges. I began by establishing a background on Japan’s new relationship with the Western world, and how Japanese artists began reacting to Western culture.From there, I looked at how Japanese artists like Kobayashi Kiyochika, after growing up in a Japan open to the West, began to assimilate Western elements into his work. The subject of works like Distant View of Mt. Fuji from the Hakone Mountains shows an iconic subject of Japanese prints, but now with a Western sense of atmosphere, light and illusionistic space. In addition, the placement of the telegraph pole shows that modern technology has come to a Japan that will never be the same again.
The same type of formal hybridization of Japanese and Western aesthetics was also seen in the work of American artists, as seen in this print made by Helen Hyde. The recession between foreground and background is typical of Western perspective construction, but the tree branches and their placement are very Japanese ideas.
By the 1930s, there was an international style in place, as evidenced by Japanese-born artist Chiura Obata’s work. Obata moved to America early in his life, but was a very transnational figure. After making watercolor images of Yosemite—images of an iconic American West—Obata returned to Japan to have his watercolors turned into color woodblock prints in a very traditional Japanese workshop setting of carvers and printers. After these were made, Obata returned to America to exhibit and sell these prints. These are but a few examples that show how I traced this merging of formal elements and find that by the 1930s, color woodblock prints from both Japan and America have a nearly indistinguishable aesthetic!
Though I’d done formal presentations in the classroom before, this was my first symposium and first official talk open to the public. After excitedly finding out that my proposal had been selected in mid-June, I began to work on formatting my presentation for the symposium, improving the depth of my research over the summer. I worked with Dr. Langa in September on the final revisions and further refined and clarified my major points. We also held a rehearsal that allowed for some last-minute issues to be addressed by the other professors and students. Though I was definitely nervous, I was ready to present by the time the symposium came around. My only nerves at that point really were for the Q&A portion! All in all, it was a great experience and has given me some fresh perspectives and questions brought up by others that I can address as I complete the final paper. Thanks for reading! –Emily