Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit “Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh: Ways of Pointillism,” a remarkable exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (open through 8 January 2017). It was an eye-opening show on a couple of levels.
First, it disabused me of a vague notion I had carried around for decades that modern painting originates with Impressionism–that, in other words, twentieth-century visual art descended more or less in a direct line from Monet, Renoir, and company. The Albertina show argues forcefully and persuasively that we should look rather to Pointillism, which arose in direct opposition to Impressionism, as the seminal moment. It was Pointillism that finally liberated the painted image from any obligation to represent the external object as it appeared to the painter. Its aesthetic was governed instead by an autonomous logic that governed the interrelationships between dots of different colors arranged across the surface of the canvas. Moreover, as the impressive range of paintings assembled in the show demonstrates, virtually every major figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western painting went through a Pointillist phase: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and more.
Second, it suggested that the bifurcation in post-1960s Japanimation styles between full animation (represented most famously by Miyazaki Hayao) and limited animation (e.g. Tezuka Osamu’s work for television) was a rehashing of a debate that happened in oil painting nearly a century earlier. I have in mind here the argument Thomas LaMarre makes in his brilliant 2009 book, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. According to LaMarre, full animation attempts to direct attention away from the gaps between the different planes of the animated image by centering itself on the movements of characters, drawn in loving detail against lush backgrounds. This technique generates a panoramic perspective that provides the illusion of a certain, albeit ambiguous, sense of depth. Limited animation, on the other hand, collapses the different planes of the animated image into a single flat surface to produce an effect that LaMarre calls “superplanarity”: all movement and energy now diffuse across the horizontal surface of the image rather than simulating some sort of depth.
According to the Albertina exhibit’s explanation, Pointillism aimed at something similar. Countless dots are arranged in non-hierarchical order across the surface of the canvas, each carrying an equal value. Through the contrasts and harmonies of different colors situated in relation to one another, a visual energy is unleashed across the flat plane of the image. The painting comes alive in the eye of the viewer with a kind of luminous oscillation that vibrates between the dots spread across its flat surface.
LaMarre critiques previous theorists who have tried to link the ‘superflat’ aesthetic of limited animation to Edo period visual art, usually assuming an essentialist West vs. Japan binary to link Japanimation to a seemingly ahistorical national aesthetic. The Albertina exhibit suggests that even within the ‘Western’ canon of painting, a similar conflict has long been at work. In their gorgeous works from the 1880s and 90s, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac produced a visual logic that Tezuka Osamu would have appreciated.
I hope that you had a good summer, wherever and however you spent it. Classes at UChicago start Monday, so let me try to recap my own summer. For me, 2013 was the summer of Vienna, in imagination and reality.
The July 31 free concert by the Grant Park Orchestra in Millennium Park helped get things started. The program consisted of a single piece: the rarely performed Symphony No. 2 by Viennese composer Antonio Bruckner. It’s a delightfully sweet composition, especially in the slow movement, and the performance on a fine summer evening captured it quite gracefully. Mentally I was already walking alongside the Danube, the Blue Danube.
Around the same time, I began my background reading: two fine cultural histories of Vienna: Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 (1980) and Carl E. Schorske’s Fin–de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980). From there, I moved onto Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1942), an elegiac memoir of the novelist’s life in Vienna that he completed in exile in South America, the day before he committed suicide. I also read Vienna Idylls, a collection of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler. It’s easy to understand why Freud loved Schnitzler: his fiction throbs with repressed desires and unspoken impulses. His characters say one thing, but clearly mean something entirely different. They think they desire one object, but obviously covet the exact opposite. Modernity in a nutshell.
On the morning of August 6, we arrived at the airport in Vienna, took the express train into the city and then the subway to Graben. The moment we emerged at the top of the escalator from the Stephansplatz underground and into the ancient plaza was stunning–as was the heat. We checked into our hotel and began a dazed four-day visit. The highlights for me were visiting Berggasse 19–the apartment where Sigmund Freud lived and worked from 1891 until 1938, when he went into exile after the Nazis took over Austria–and the Prater amusement park, home of the famous Ferris wheel. I’ve always loved carnivals and fairs (a few weeks after Vienna we made our annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair), and I especially liked Prater because it was the only time during our visit to Austria that we mingled with working class, immigrants, teen-agers: ordinary folks, out like us for a good time on a pleasant summer night.
Another highlight was the Secession museum, where we spent half an hour in the company of Klimt’s Beethoven freize.
The Secession was also hosting an exhibit of the work of Thomas Locher, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s writings on Mauss and the gift–which have been enormously influential on my own scholarship. We had to rush through that exhibit, though, as the museum was closing. After exiting we wandered through the outdoor night market that lies just outside the museum.
In the two months since we returned from Vienna, I find myself stumbling into references to Vienna everywhere. Summer’s gone, but I’m still walking alongside the Danube.
Last week in Tokyo I visited the ongoing “Natsume Soseki and the World of Art” (夏目漱石の美術世界展） exhibit at the Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku Bijutsukan, near Ueno Park. The show continues through July 7 and is well worth your while. The exhibition website (Japanese language only) is here and includes many images from the show.
It’s a big exhibit–over 200 pieces arranged across eight different rooms. The first room, “Preface,” centers on Hashiguchi Goyo’s striking Art Nouveau style illustrations and cover designs for the first edition of I Am A Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905-6). I’ve seen most of them before, but having them displayed together alongside early sketches really brings out their wonderful strangeness.
“Chapter One” focuses on mostly European-style painting, including a number of works discussed in Soseki’s early fiction. “Chapter Two” turns its gaze on East Asian pieces, including some mentioned in various novels and stories. “Chapter Three” includes 42 works connected to the novels Kusamakura (1906), Sanshiro (1908), And Then (Sore kara, 1909) and The Gate (Mon, 1910). It includes, for example, John William Waterhouse’s 1901 oil painting “The Mermaid,” which Sanshiro and Minako encounter and discuss in Sanshiro. This room includes one painting especially created for the exhibit: Sato Eisuke’s reconstruction of “Mori no onna,” the portrait of Minako that Sanshiro gazes at in the closing pages of the novel. The style of Sato’s rendering matches my mental image of the painting described in the novel, but it seemed much too small: reading Soseki’s description of the work, I imagine an enormous panel-sized painting, but Sato’s version is less than one meter tall, I think. Here’s a video snippet:
“Chapter Four” explores Soseki’s relations with contemporary artists. The organizers have assembled a large number of works that were displayed at the 1912 “Bunten” exhibit, about which Soseki serialized an extended review essay in the Asahi newspaper. They include quotations from Soseki’s evaluation next to each of the works. Perhaps it’s just me and the strong emotional bond I feel for Soseki, but there’s something about standing in front of a painting that you know he gazed at one hundred years ago and comparing your own reaction to his. Both Soseki and I were struck by Sano Issei’s “Yukizora,” a folding screen depicting a flock of birds scattered across the withered branches of a tree, :
“Chapter Five” collects works by painters who were close to Soseki, inlcuiding Asai Chu, Nakamura Fusetsu, and Hamaguchi. I was struck by Tsuda Seifu’s 1931 portrait of Natsume Aiko (Soseki’s daughter), wearing a bright red dress and smiling broadly. There is also a striking watercolor of a chrysanthemum in the guise of a letter that Masaoka Shiki sent to Soseki in 1900.
“Chapter Six” includes 24 of Soseki’s own paintings. He was a serious amateur painter working mainly in watercolors and ink. I was curious to see that all of the works included came from the collection of Iwanami Shoten. I can understand why the various manuscript pages included in the exhibit would be in the hands of Iwanami, Soseki’s publisher. But why do they also own many of his artworks, which were not meant for publication or public display? The exhibit concludes with a room that covers more of the elegant artwork from the early editions of Soseki’s books.
The museum is a short walk from Ueno Park, the setting for a number of scenes in Soseki’s fiction. We are in a stretch now where every year marks the centennial anniversary of important works by Soseki, and the urge to try to retrace his footsteps is only natural. See if you can resist the urge to stand alone in front of “Mori no onna” and whisper silently, “Stray sheep.”
I flew into New York City on Wednesday afternoon. Right after checking into my hotel, headed over to the Barrymore Theatre on West 47th to catch “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Mike Nichols with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willy Loman. Hoffman’s portrayal has elicited a wide range of reactions, from gushing celebration (e.g. John Lahr’s review in the New Yorker) to puzzled dissent (e.g. Chris Jones’ review in the Chicago Tribune).
After seeing the production, I understand the uneven reaction. There’s a mannered quality to Hoffman’s acting here: several times in the evening, he falls silent for four or five seconds, and it’s not clear what’s going on behind Loman’s blank face: confusion, doubt, rage? If you can accept the mannerisms, you begin to accept Hoffman’s Loman, even as you never quite identify with him. The supporting cast is generally strong, and the set uses the classic original design by Jo Mielziner. But ultimately I find myself thinking that I don’t much like this script. It’s celebrated as one of the great American plays, and yet I find it forced, humorless, and altogether too pleading in its earnestness. I find my response odd. I’m usually a sucker for Cold War liberal humanism and its middlebrow masterpieces: I could sit and watch Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals all day. But Arthur Miller leaves me cold.
Thursday morning, I headed over to the Japan Society to catch the excellent “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945” exhibit. The show is, I think, mistitled–perhaps intentionally, to capture the attention of a certain audience who might not come if it were more properly called “Japan’s Modern Moment.” But lots of excellent pieces–in particular sculpture and (a pleasant surprise) covers of popular sheet music books for harmonica players. The show continues until June 10.
Thursday’s lunch brought me to Mariella’s Pizza, just south of Columbus Circle. The guys behind the counter provided a theatrical experience rivaling what I’d seen the previous night on Broadway, and the pizza was pretty good, too. Then I caught a cup of coffee and lively conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years who was full of entertaining stories, as usual.
Thursday evening, I gave my lecture at the Donald Keene Center at Columbia University: “Rethinking Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature as World Literature.” Nice turn out for the talk, and lots of good questions and comments afterward. That was followed by a very enjoyable dinner with Columbia faculty and grad students. Thanks to all who came out for the event.
Friday morning, I headed to the Asia Society for its remarkable exhibit, “Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857.” I’d just been reading Aamir Mufti’s “Orientalism and the Institution of World Literatures” (.pdf file here) in which he discusses the importance of the Fort William College project in the formation of modern cultural identities, both European and Asian, and now in the exhibit I was seeing the remarkable artistic legacy of the final century of the Mughal empire. The exhibit runs through May 6.
Friday was lunch at Shake Shack on W. 77th, followed by a pleasant walk through Central Park with a couple of old friends (the weather was perfect throughout my trip) and then I was off to LaGuardia Airport and back home to Chicago. I got a little reading done on the flight, but mostly listened to tunes: Charlie Mingus, Aimee Mann (we talked about her Magnolia soundtrack on our stroll through the park), and Kids These Days.
It was, in sum, a lovely three days and only strengthened my long-standing desire to spend a year or two living in the City. Someday.
Yesterday was the second and final day of the conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” We began in the morning with a panel on “Engaging Cinematic Commodities,” with papers from Junji Yoshida (University of Chicago postdoctoral fellow) on the ways wartime memories were commemorated via jokes in 1960s popular films, Stephanie DeBoer (Indiana University) on the flows of people, technologies and forms between Tokyo and Hong Kong in the musical film genre, and Richard Davis (University of Chicago graduate student) on the depiction of advertising, both visual and aural, in 1960s film.
After lunch, we had a panel on “Radical Visual Culture in 1960s Japan” with Jonathan Hall (Pomona College) situating Okabe Michio’s remarkable 1968 film Crazy Love in dialogue with Susan Sontag’s writings on camp, William Marotti (UCLA) on the significance of early 1960s avant garde musical performances by the Group Ongaku, and Miryam Sas (University of California-Berkeley) on a variety of experimental animated films from the period.
Our last panel covered “Music in Film,” with Daniel Johnson (University of Chicago graduate student) looking at changing modes for representing romance/sex and sentiment/irony in Nikkatsu action films, Michael Raine (University of Chicago) discussing how we might rethink the practices of reading that 1960s popular films seem to suggest as their proper modes of use, and Junko Yamazaki (University of Chicago graduate student) on the use of avant garde musical forms in the film soundtracks composed by Mayuzumi Toshiro.
The conference ended with a screening of the remarkable 1964 Toho musical, Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru (You too can get ahead!, dir. Sugawa Eizo), a marvelous film that brings together many of the themes we had been talking about over the course of the conference. It was a stimulating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting two days, and I’m grateful to all of the participants and to all of my colleagues for making it possible.
Here’s a trailer for Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru:
When I was a visiting professor at International Christian University in Tokyo (2005-2007), on my way home from campus I used to walk past a queer building. It was obviously an apartment building of some sort, but it was a striking conglomeration of strange shapes and vivid colors, like something designed by Dr. Seuss. My curiosity was piqued, and some on-line exploration told me that this was in fact Reversible Destiny Mitaka, a new art project by Arakawa Shusaku and Madeline Gins.
The press is reporting today that Arakawa passed away on Wednesday. The news is both sad and ironic: Arakawa vowed that his work was “architecture against death,” and he and Gins famously announced for an exhibit that “we have decided not to die.” It is also ironic, because today at the University of Chicago we begin “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art,” a conference exploring figures like Arakawa, who troubled the boundaries of art, commerce, and scholarship to generate a remarkable moment in global cultural history.
Of course, Arakawa lives on — in his impact, in our conference, and, surely not least of all, in the Reversible Destiny Mitaka buildings:
“Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art”
On May 21-22, the University of Chicago will host “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art,” a conference focusing on the remarkable world of 1960s Japanese culture. During that turbulent decade, Japanese filmmakers, musicians and artists operated in a highly fluid environment in which boundaries between mass-culture entertainment and avant-garde art came under constant pressure. This remarkable environment gave rise to hit songs and movies that incorporated abstract experimental techniques, as well as to avant-garde art pieces that freely integrated elements from commercial culture. The conference will include new scholarly papers on experimental film, popular genre film, jazz, folk music, rock-and-roll, animation and other cultural forms from the period.
The conference will also feature special appearances by musicians who were key figures in the 1960s Japan rock scene, including Alan Merrill, an American singer/songwriter who was a member of the Group Sounds band The Lead, then a solo performer signed by the influential Watanabe Pro management agency, and subsequently the leader of the pioneering glam rock outfit Vodka Collins. (After leaving Japan in 1973, Merrill founded The Arrows, a band that had several hits in the UK, including the original version of “I Love Rock and Roll,” a Merrill composition later recorded by Joan Jett and many others).
Three original members of the legendary Group Sounds band The Golden Cups will also appear at the event — lead guitarist Eddie Ban, bassist Louise Louis Kabe, and drummer/singer Mamoru Manu — and the conference will include a screening of The Golden Cups: One More Time, an acclaimed 2004 documentary about the band.
All events are free and open to the public, but RSVP is required for the Friday evening sessions featuring Merrill and The Golden Cups. The RSVP link and a full conference schedule are available on line at:
The event is the eighth in the annual Japan@Chicago conference series and is sponsored by the Committee on Japanese Studies at the Center for East Asian Studies. Persons who may need assistance to participate should call 773-702-2715. For additional information, please contact Sarah Arehart, Outreach Coordinator for the Center for East Asian Studies (email@example.com).
[Updated May 13: We have added the RSVP system for the Friday night sessions mentioned above because we anticipate a large demand for the limited number of seats available]
I have a powerful sense today that I am returning now to my own life after a considerable absence. For at least the past week, I have seemingly been living the life of someone else — someone with similar tastes and close connections to me, but someone operating on a different calendar, ruled by different forces. And, obviously, someone who doesn’t update their blog very much. On the whole, it wasn’t a bad week, though a bit on the hectic side. I’m glad to find myself back in my own shoes again today.
Let me trace it back to a week ago tonight. I (or whomever it was) caught the Ike Reilly Assassination in concert at Lincoln Hall. Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s boy) opened with a surprising paranoid set of Southern-fried prog-rock-country, and then Ike and his band took the stage. His parents were in the house, he announced, and it was all in all a fine show. Shooter came on stage to perform the wonderful duet, “The War on the Terror and the Drugs,” included on Ike’s most recent album. If you haven’t heard it yet, stop whatever it is you are doing immediately and click on the following video:
The next day was my anniversary, and we celebrated by watching our daughter play Lucy in a middle-school production of “Snoopy! The Musical.” Our offspring performed wonderfully well, and the show itself is great fun, including complex ensemble songs like “Edgar Allan Poe” (see video from another production below) and “Clouds.”
On Saturday afternoon, I was at the Joffrey Ballet, taking in “Eclectica,” their spring program: Gerald Arpino’s 1971 piece, Reflections, plus two world premieres: Jessica Lang’s pretty awesome Crossed , a meditation on religion and spirituality in which the dancers duck around large moving stage sets, and James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, also quite striking. One reviewer calls it “the most intellectually engaging Joffrey program in recent memory.” Call me engaged.
I then jumped into the car and drove to Sparta, Wisconsin, where I spent the night in a dive motel that shall remain nameless. Only the sheets have been changed to protect the innocent. The next morning, I drove up the Mississippi River to Stockholm, Wisconsin, to pick up some of my mother’s paintings for a new retrospective exhibition. I’d forgotten how pretty that part of the country is. I spent the rest of the day tracking down more paintings for the show across central Minnesota — Edina, St. Paul, North Branch.
Monday morning I helped set up the exhibit in the Art Gallery at Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater, Minnesota–where my mother, my sister, and I were all born. It’s a wonderful collection of 14 of my mother’s best works, many of which haven’t been shown publicly for years. It will be open through June 29, and there are new prints and cards of my mother’s paintings for sale in the hospital gift shop. Details on hours and how to get there can be found here.
Monday evening found me at Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins. While ingesting far too much animal protein, I watched my favorite baseball team clobber the Detroit Tigers. Wilson Ramos, the Twins’ fine young catching prospect, got three hits in his second Major League game, this after he collected four the night before in his debut, thereby setting a new rookie record and sending Twins’ fans into a mild frenzy. It’s a fine new ballpark, too, with many thoughtful details, inside and out. I didn’t mind the raindrops that fell intermittently through the evening, not one bit.
Tuesday, I drove back to Chicago, picking up along the way our oldest from his dorm to haul him home for summer vacation after his freshman year at college. Then yesterday I helped host the great historian Harry Harootunian for a couple of very stimulating talks here at the University of Chicago. The day ended at a restaurant in Chinatown, with good food and lively talk with our visitor and several colleagues.
After all that, I woke up this morning and looked in the mirror, and it was me again. Welcome back, and don’t forget to turn off the lights when you leave again.
Yesterday we had a few minutes to kill downtown before my daughter’s orthodontist appointment. As we often do when faced with that situation, we stopped by my favorite public space in America: the Chicago Cultural Center. There, we took in two current exhibits, both quite fascinating–and, unfortunately, both slated to close later this week.
“R&R (…&R)” is an exhibit of works by Susanne Slavick. She takes photographs of contemporary wartime destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon and paints over them images from classical Islamic artwork, creating strikingly beautiful symbols of healing. One large panel, for instance, consisted of black-and-white photographs of bombed out cars, with colorful painted images of angels in the heavens pulling on ropes attached to the twisted hulks below. Slavick’s works give a sense of “restoration ” (one of the “R” words she has in mind in the exhibit title), and they also prod us toward a new awareness of our place in a global, millennial flow of history: I couldn’t help wondering how the images of our own violent times will look to human (or angelic) observers 500 years hence. The exhibit runs through April 4. You can see more of Slavick’s work here.
In a neighboring gallery we found “Up is Down: Paintings by Joel Sheesley.” In sharp contrast to Slavick’s macroscopic take on human history, Sheesley uses a microscope: his paintings depict small puddles in his back yard, with each water surface transforming into a mirror that reflects upward: ladders, clouds, people. The detailed images are often achingly beautiful, as Sheesley opens up an almost infinite sense of joy and wonder in the most mundane of (literally) backyard phenomena. The exhibit runs through April 3. Sheesley’s website is here.
The orthodontist appointment likewise turned out pretty well. I hope your Saturday morning brought you something splendid, as well–whether on a macroscopic or a microscopic scale.
When I first arrived here in Chicago a couple of years back, I managed to offend one of my new colleague’s sensibilities. We were walking across campus together when this respected scholar asked me if I didn’t simply love the architecture of the university’s buildings. Without thinking, I replied that I thought it was a little silly. Here in Hyde Park, a neighborhood studded with masterpieces of Prairie School and other early-twentieth-century styles of American design, why had the Rockefellers and the university administration decided to build in the Gothic style, as if Hyde Park were thirteenth-century Cambridge or Oxford? It reminded me a little of the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland.
I could tell by my colleague’s facial response that I’d said the wrong thing — I have practice in recognizing that look, given the number of times I put my foot in my mouth in the average day.
Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the campus’s beauty a bit more, especially in summer when everything is in bloom. Most of all, I like the gargoyles that keep watch over us from the turrets and arches of the buildings on the main quad.
Yesterday, my daughter and I trekked over to Rockefeller Chapel — the most Gothic of all the campus buildings — for the opening reception for “That Gargoyle on My Shoulder.” The exhibit brings together gargoyle-related works by local and national artists, including paintings, photography, and sculpture, all of which look remarkably at home in the looming chancels of the chapel. One inventive piece pairs two small paintings in round frames, one of a conventional gargoyle mounted on a cathedral tower, the other depicting a modern video surveillance camera in the same position. We’re still being watched from on high, the piece reminds us.
The exhibit also includes some thirty papier-mâché gargoyles produced over the past five or six years by sixth graders at the University of Chicago Lab Schools–including one done a couple of years back by my daughter Sonia, pictured above. Here’s the planning sketch she did for it, which now hangs in a prominent position on our walls at home.
A review of the exhibit in the Chicago Maroon newspaper praises the student works as “impressive” and concludes
Sixty beady eyes observing your every move certainly has the potential to be unnerving, but That Gargoyle on My Shoulder manages to unite the grotesque with the whimsical for an overall experience that is quite positive. The elephant-eared, tentacled, long-snouted beasts that adorn the inner walls of the chapel make the space a little eccentric, quite inventive, and very exemplary of the U of C.
That’s the word I should have used two years ago: not “silly,” but “eccentric.” It would have reduced the awkwardness of the moment, and it also would have been more precise.
The show runs through March 19, and they promise to serve hot chocolate to visitors. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and check out the eccentric vibe.