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Kindai bijutsu – The Reception of Western Concepts of Art in Japan around the Year 1900

Through a Focus on the Meiji Period Collections of the Historical and Ethnological Museum of St. Gallen, Switzerland

Responsible for the doctoral project: Jeanne Egloff, lic.phil.
Funded by: URPP Asia and Europe
Project duration: September 2011 – August 2014
Doctoral committee: Prof. Dr. Hans Bjarne Thomsen, Art History Institute, Section for East Asian Art/URPP Asia and Europe; Prof. Dr. Mareile Flitsch, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich/URPP Asia and Europe; Prof. Dr. Hiroshi Kurushima (Rekihaku, National Museum of Japanese History, Tokyo)
Research Field: Entangled Histories

Prints and Paintings of Japanese beauties (bijin-ga) from the 17th to 20th Century
Prints and Paintings of Japanese beauties (bijin-ga) from the 17th to 20th Century (Copyright Historical and Ethnographical Museum St. Gallen)

Abstract

It is significant that the Japanese term for “art” – bijutsu 美術 – was introduced during the preparations for Japan’s first appearance at a world exhibition (Vienna, 1873). The term was derived from the German words “Kunstgewerbe” (arts and crafts) and “Bildende Kunst” (fine arts). The exact definition of this newly constructed term, and the decisions on what type of traditions and artifacts should be included or excluded were the subject of controversies based on the different cultural values in Japan and in the West. In my thesis, I analyze the complex relations between Japan and Europe in regard to the term bijutsu and the various interpretations of the word and concept during the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. A study of the primary sources at the time of the first Japanese contacts with European art and architecture (e.g. the Iwakura Mission to Western Countries, 1871-1873) should help to better understand these important processes. The main aim of my research is to investigate the Japanese reception of Western ideas and objects on the development of “modern art” – kindai bijutsu近代美術 – in Japan. Examples of the so far unknown collection of Meiji period (1868-1912) objects at the Ethnological Museum of St.Gallen in Switzerland will further serve to illustrate the impact of Western culture on the origins of kindai bijutsu in Japan.