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Doctoral Project

The changing concept of the painted copy in late nineteenth-century Japan
Katharina Rode (M.A.)

How did the introduction of European concepts affect the painting practices in Meiji Japan? Understanding the Meiji period both as a phase for transition and innovation, my project examines the shifts in understanding and evaluating imitative practices in response to the influx of European aesthetic and art historical concepts into the politics of Japanese painting.

Despite being deeply rooted in East Asian painting theories, imitative practices like mosha, rinmo or funpon collided with expectations of oriental exoticism and artistic originality as conceptualized in Europe and the USA. My project focusses on four underlying aspects - terminology, ideology, practice and theory - to grasp the mechanics behind the subtle development: from workshop routine to necessary educational tools, and finally tacit mimetic processes.

Treating the imitative practices terminologically as concepts rather than (untranslatable) terms, I want to examine the use and application of these concepts and shed light on their understanding in their emic environment. Furthermore, pitting them artificially against the newly introduced European concepts like ‘masterwork’ or ‘originality’ will highlight their immanent ideological value in the dialogical context of the time.

Japan’s government was forced to appeal to the West and performed an act of ideological self-colonialization by rapidly adopting foreign technology, theories and concepts, which inter alia led to a complete re-thinking of painting as a cultural asset. Simultaneously, it met the needs for preservation and representation with instantiating a cultural heritage legislation that re-framed shrines and temples as well as their possessions as art. This created a new overarching layer above the established object hierarchies. Reproduction projects undertaken for educational purposes also sought to revive forgotten techniques of classical painting.

Mirroring the trends in enthusiasm for Westernization between the 1870s and 1910s, professional painting practice first moved away from established models and methods, before integrating them into the new environment of the art school. Here, different “lineages of borrowing” collided in an ideologically-charged creative space, which in turn produced different approaches to the newly coined Nihonga. Amateur painters, however, continued their routine in the literati framework for much longer – until an increased focus on nationalization eventually resulted in the professionalization, coalescence and institutionalization under the overarching banner of Nihonga at the end of the 1890s.

Political and ideological shifts lead to the emergence of new object hierarchies within the developing new disciplines of aesthetic and art history. This, in turn, affected paintings old and new. The ensuing re-evaluation of old paintings happened with a fresh eye, but also with a somewhat Western gaze that labored on other standards than the early modern authentication procedures. Furthermore, the holistic object-identities of paintings were tremendously altered by their transition into a new art market, museums and modern collections.