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SOAS Alumni talks Curating, Cultural Heritage, and the Feinberg Collection

  • Culture

By Fiona Collins, MA Japanese Studies

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection explores the lineages and legacy of artists active in the Tokugawa period of Japan,  and is the largest exhibition ever organized by the Harvard Art Museums. Originally scheduled from 14 February 14 2020 through 18 July 2021, it was temporarily closed to the public last March due to concerns surrounding Covid-19. Information about the exhibition, however, was quickly made available online through Vimeo and Google Arts and Culture: essays, catalogue entries, images recorded tours with curators create not only an ‘online exhibition’, but a comprehensive digital archive.

Japanese art historian, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Curator of Asian Art, and SOAS alumni Rachel Saunders agreed to speak with me about her time at SOAS, and how it impacted the way she approached subsequent work and research. We also discuss her curatorial vision for Painting Edo, which she co-curated with Yukio Lippit, and the efforts taken to facilitate online engagement between the public and the Feinberg collection during lockdown.

Could you tell me a little about what drew you to the MA History of Art and Archaeology program at SOAS?

I did my BA at Oxford in Japanese Studies; The program was five years and covered history, art, language, culture, etc. As the only student in the department interested in studying the visual arts of Japan, I was lucky enough to spend a year working with Oliver Impey, a curator at the Ashmolean museum (since passed away). He encouraged me to pursue MA programs in art history, and SOAS was a natural choice because of its focus on the arts of Asia and the intensity of its curriculum. Another draw was the opportunity of working with Professor Timon Screech, who has enormous intellectual curiosity, and has always challenged and made important contributions to the field of Japanese art history.

You have shared that your path to studying and curating Japanese art was not always linear. Are there any avenues you are glad you explored or skills you learned between graduating SOAS and starting your PhD at Harvard?

I’m thankful for the time I took in between! After my MA, I worked in an academic publishing firm with materials related to East Asia. I am glad that I got to see academia from the outside – working with academics but not as an academic. Further on in my career, it really made me conscious of the question ‘who cares’ and ‘why does this matter?’ when developing or proposing new projects. My responsibilities in the job also prepared me for the collaborative nature of curating, since I had to work with dozens of people every day, all with different needs.  

Are there any aspects of the Painting Edo that you feel have challenged (or made significant contributions to) common conceptions about the canon of Japanese art history?

The Feinberg collection is very comprehensive and exceptionally high quality; this made it possible for us to do things in the Painting Edo exhibition that may have not been possible otherwise. One of our main objectives was to reexamine the more habituated categories of Edo painting, many of which were established in the 20th century, while keeping in mind that terms like ‘Rinpa’ or ‘Literati’ are important to tidy up larger concepts within the discussion of Japanese art. What we ultimately tried to do was return to terms that were used in the Edo period itself. For instance, we use the word ‘eccentricity’ (Jp. ki) to describe a group of artists now conventionally known as ‘eccentrics’ (Jp. kijin) because the latter was a word that emerged in the 1950’s and needed to be reevaluated.

How soon after Harvard Art Museums closed to the public did you start the process of sharing Painting Edo’s content via online platforms like Google Arts & Culture and Vimeo? Did you have any particular strategies for communicating the exhibition’s narrative?

We were able to pivot pretty quickly. Luckily, there was a lot of effort that went into photographing everything before the lockdown. Although these materials documented the exhibition well, once we started putting them online we also decided to engage people with videos, since they added variety and immediacy when engaging with the collection. 

In a way, this new format presented exciting possibilities. For example, we collaborated with the Harvard Arboretum to create opportunities to see live plants alongside paintings from the collection that portrayed them. Under normal circumstances, there are 5 miles between the Arboretum and the Museum, so Zoom invited the looking into the same space. I had a very interesting conversation with a botanist who looked at a painting and immediately identified it as a species of Black pine native to Japan based on how (what I had read as) ‘moss dots’ were painted! It turned out not to be moss at all, but a key feature in the biological makeup of the Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii). I knew that particular artist painted in painstaking detail in polychrome, but did not realize that he applied the same eye in a gestural ink painting!

Is there anything you would like people to know about the exhibition?

We invited Timon Screech, my dissertation advisor from SOAS, to give the opening lecture for the exhibition. He spoke for about an hour and everyone was one the edge of their seats – it was a great SOAS moment! It was a special moment to bring in the person who started it all for me. If anyone is interested, the lecture was recorded and online. 

Photo caption: Cranes by Suzuki Kiitsu, c. 1820-25. (Credit: Harvard Art Museum)

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