Episode 62 – Dr. Gennifer Weisenfeld (Duke)

Originally published on September 21, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Gennifer Weisenfeld, Dean of the Humanities and Professor in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. Dr. Weisenfeld is the author, most recently, of Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923, published by the University of California Press in 2012. Dr. Weisenfeld, thank you so much for talking with me today. 

Gennifer Weisenfeld: It’s great to be here. 

TG: On the podcast, I’ve talked with other art historians, really, about how developments during the Meiji period impact Japanese art and constructions of this term “modern Japanese art.” But I’m curious in what ways the Meiji period sets the stage for later developments in Japanese art, and really, how later artists react to some of these modern institutions, be they artistic, political or even this very idea of modernity itself. You’ve written about this in Mavo and so, I was wondering if you could unpack that for us a bit? 

GW: Sure. Exactly as you said, I don’t think there would have been a Mavo without the institutional building and the creation of academies and the conceptual restructuring of art that happened with the Meiji Restoration, and then of course, the nation-building project in general. You can’t overstate how much the national project produced and re-ordered, re-taxonomized artistic production, and I know one of the things that people always ask about the Meiji period is: Is it a rupture or is it continuity? And I think it’s both. There are certainly moments of rupture, and with the creation of these new kinds of academies, new patrimony, new ways in which patronage and cultural entities are organized and exhibited, that really changes the nature of the way art is perceived, but people continued to produce art in many of the same ways. It’s the structuring and the perception of it that changes. 

And what you find in the Taishō period after the short period, the short and dynamic period that comes right after Meiji is that you get this whole generation of artists who’d grown up in this structuring and re-ordering and taxonomizing and re-prioritizing of art under the state, and they say: “No! Art is about expression. It is about the individual. It is not about the nation and so, their whole ideology, and their whole sense of art and daily life is structured in relation to what the state has tried to do and what cultural ideologues have tried to do to make art central to the nation-building process. So, you can’t have an avant-garde without an art establishment. I think that’s the takeaway for me about Mavo, is that it’s a dialectic, and you can’t really have one without the other. 

TG: Now, we’ve used this term “Mavo” several times now. For the listeners who aren’t aware of what the Mavo movement was, can you describe what it was, and trace the contours of it a bit for us? 

GW: Mavo was actually the name of a group. There are a lot of apocryphal, slightly mythical tellings of how the name generated, whether it was a kind of dadaistic cutting up of the individual alphabetical (Western alphabet) names of the various participants and then they were thrown up and made a word, or whether they were chosen, or how it all developed…some of it’s a little too neat, and one wonders where the “v” came from. But some people said it was from Varvara Bubnova, who was a Russian participant who was known to this group of artists. But basically, it was a, I’d like to say, kind of a ragtag group of young Japanese artists – very young – led by a very iconoclastic, charismatic figure named Murayama Tomoyoshi. And Murayama had the opportunity to study in Berlin in a critical time period in the early ‘20s, and when he came back, he galvanized a group of artists who were working, in some ways, on the periphery of these academies and other types of organizations and exhibitions that were set up during this process of the art establishment getting set up in the Meiji period. They rallied together, but I think they clashed as much as they coalesced. 

And they are, in many ways, the quintessential avant-garde because they worked in so many different types of media and idioms. When you think about artists, you don’t want to just think about people who are making a painting or a sculpture, but these artists were performing, they were writing poetry, they had a magazine that they issued. It was a very short-lived but very intense…it burned bright and then burned out, and of course, their works spanned the Great Kantō Earthquake, which is what got me so interested in them in the first place about how their work was both responding to the chaos of this massive destruction of the capital of Tokyo and surrounding areas, but also, seeing opportunity in the wake of that destruction. Much of that – I don’t know if euphoria is the right word, but the kind of optimism about the possibility after destruction was because so many of the things that had been created in the Meiji period were now rend asunder and were there in ruins, and the possibility of rebuilding…But of course, those structures were more than just the buildings that were destroyed. They were already deeply entrenched in culture. 

So, I don’t know if that gives you a general sense of who they were. They were, at the start, five people, but at any one time, there were 10-15 artists who were participating, they had exhibitions, they had these what you would think of as now, kind of pop-up exhibitions, very ahead of their time, happenings. They got a lot of publicity in the newspapers at the time because they were doing radical and rebellious things. They had a kind of salon de refusés, which was what you had in Paris with all of the art that was actually rejected from the main Paris salon, and they did it too, but they did it on park benches in Ueno. So, really interesting approaches to how to be active and engaged in art in the modern period in the 1920s in response to and also, in a sense, trying to undermine those kinds of art establishment practices. 

TG: And you mentioned that the Great Kantō Earthquake as this moment of tearing asunder of the city, and one of the narratives that we get often of the Kantō Earthquake is that, you know, it hits right in the centre of Tokyo, the centre of all this Meiji modernization, and really, destroys many of those emblems of modernization: the Ginza Bricktown is completely destroyed by the earthquake, many of these other great artifacts of the Meiji period are all destroyed. And so, people see this as maybe a sign from the gods that this modernization went too far. Is there some overlap here with the avant-garde movement? Is criticizing modernity…they see this as a new call? Or what are some of the responses to the Great Kantō Earthquake? And of course, you’ve written about this in your book Imaging Disaster

GW: Yes. I think exactly as you said. Particularly, you mentioned Ginza, but also, one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time (I think the second tallest building in the world at the time) was the Ryōunkaku, which was known commonly as the Twelve Storeys, which was in Asakusa. It was the skyscraper of the age, and it cracked in half and fell over in the earthquake. And that’s one of the consummate, iconic examples of the risks of modernity, of the aspirations to build taller, but the greater the technology, the more the destruction. So, there is a lot of rhetoric, anti-modernity rhetoric, and also fear about what that said about Japan’s national progress. The whole Meiji project of civilization and enlightenment is questioned there, but that’s generally overtaken by a desire to rebuild a very positivistic notion (and even a kind of cyclical notion) of rebuilding the city. People are squatting on their property pretty quickly, and the avant-garde itself, as I mentioned before, maybe euphoria is the right word, and that they actually see this as an opportunity, as many people do, that destruction is an opportunity to rebuild and rethink, and in a sense levels everyone, or at least that was a part of the rhetoric of class that everyone is equal in the face of disaster. It did create all kinds of new possibilities both for artists, but also for the capital. 

So, it’s a kind of mixture there in that the push and pull of destruction and apocalypse and rebirth and renewal and divine retribution and the idea that well, nature is actually not divinely ordained. But this is just part and parcel of the natural world because that was part of the scientific rhetoric of progress. You have all of these really interesting, this heady mixture of all of these different things, and I don’t think you can say that Japan had one reaction to the earthquake. That’s part of the argument of my book is that it’s really in conversation, and there are any number of facets and ways in which people interpret it. 

One of the projects that I’ve just completed or is actually ongoing (I’ve been developing it with one of my graduate students) is an archive of postcards of the Great Kantō Earthquake, and I got very interested in the medium of postcards, both as a collectible, as a means of communication, and as a source of soft news. It really was, and it’s really interesting to think, again, back to the connections in the Meiji period: the great media event in which photography and postcards coalesced around disseminating information at the same time is the Russo-Japanese War. And so, the Russo-Japanese War is the great media event of its time period, and that continues forward: the using of photography of postcards. 

So, I’ve created this archive of a collection that we have here in the Rubenstein Special Collections in Duke, and it’s just a sampling. There are just thousands and thousands of postcards. Some are black and white, some are machine-tinted, few are hand-tinted, but by and large, at that point, you have machine colour-tinting. They’re absolutely fascinating, and many of them were taken by photographers from major news organizations, so you’ve got this great photojournalistic eye, and then the images circulate. So, I talk a lot about photography and reiterations of photographs, and I talk about this visual lexicon of disaster, how that’s codified over time in different media. But photography, of course, because of its truth value or its myth of truth, is such a powerful touchstone for documenting the disaster. But as we see…and I teach with this archive with my students. I actually just did a workshop with some incoming freshmen who were taking an orientation in what research in the humanities is, and what they were so amazed [with] is to find that even just as freshmen who were just stepping onto campus, they can go into this archive of images and start to see the way the images are creating a narrative over this event, whether they’re creating an image of catastrophic ruins and that image of the Twelve Storeys that we talked about: that monumental skyscraper that cracked and becomes the shock of the modern, the shock of disaster, this discourse about the possibility of progress being stopped…They could see that in these images here, the repetition of this building as a kind of tragic carcass standing in the wake of ruins, but they also saw incredible images of refugees, of resilience, of national solidarity, of altruism, refugees getting food. So, there’s also ways in which these images tell a story of rebuilding, and I was amazed. 

These are students who have absolutely no background in Japan or even in visual studies, and one student pulled up an image that had the Imperial Palace in the background. And it was physically a bread line, a rice line for people to get food, and in the background, is this looming image of the Imperial Palace as a symbol of benevolence and a symbol, also, of continuity because of course, one of the great fears in all disasters is not only that the government is destroyed, but that there will be chaos, and what had happened to the emperor. And so, images of the Imperial Palace are so powerful, and we see that repeated in other types of media as well.

I look a lot at woodblock prints. This is really the last gasp, I think, of woodblock prints serving in a really public information dissemination form because they really become much more limited distribution afterwards, not like they were in the Sino- and Russo-Japanese Wars. But there are quite a lot of commemorative woodblock prints that are produced during this time period. 

I also, of course, do look at film. There were lots of film clips, and people using those films to raise money afterwards. But you know, there’s also a whole genre of postcards that are produced that are of just burnt and dead bodies, or bodies in rivers and waterways, and so, there’s a kind of voyeuristic gaze that these images also invoke. There’s both a tragic and national sorrow that’s evoked, but also, a little bit of a voyeuristic curiosity and a fascination with death and destruction as well. 

TG: And this goes right into your next project, I understand. If we think about one moment of destruction in Tokyo’s history being 1923, another one comes in 1945 with the air raids. And now, you’re working on the visual culture of the air raids? 

GW: That’s right, I am. I have a new book called Protect the Skies!. That’s the title of a national mobilization campaign: mamore ōzora. That starts in 1933, and this whole concept of bōkū, of protecting the skies, and that whole movement of civil air defence comes right on the heels of the earthquake. It really starts in 1928, which is well before any of the other countries that we think of because of course, civil air defence is a global development, but this is because Japan has the experience of its capital being razed. It is very concerned about that. The destruction, of course, the nature of the city…that it’s so heavily made of wood, and the prospect of incendiary bombs, not to mention poison gas bombs as well just becomes a priority issue already by the mid-late ‘20s, and you’re already seeing civil air defence drills. So, it’s a perfect dovetailing of those two cultural moments, and I’m looking at that because I’m seeing how it’s a launchpad to this next phase from the ‘30s onto 1945. 

TG: And so, some listeners might be thinking: Wow, these projects seem so disparate. And I mean, but there does seem to be this common theme of the way visual culture is being mobilized by the state in some sense. Is that what you would say is one of the themes or what are the other themes that you find common?

GW: Yes, I know, I have a bit of a meandering curiosity, but I think there is a logic or there is some kind of method to my madness. 

TG: (Laughter) 

GW: I’m very organic, I think, in the way I move through periods, but I think you put your finger on something that is really important to me, which is we do not think about the visual or visual culture more generally as simply reflective or mirroring of what’s happening, but that it actually is constructing culture. It is actually taking part in and participating as an active agent, and producing the way people see the world, and I think that’s true for the Meiji period. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion how people would understand the nation and how they would understand the state itself. And that had to be visualized, it had to be consumed, it had to be embodied, it had to be spatialized, and all of those things required artistic and creative interventions, and those produced the culture of a nation. It’s not simply the imagined community of gathering people. It’s actually: What is statecraft? What does a postal system look like? How do you build railroad stations that create a system to connect the geo-spatial aspects of the nation? Where are borders, cartography? And that’s something, I just think, carries all the way through all of my work is that I think that images have power, and objects have power. They mediate our perception of the world around us, and they produce certain kinds of…whether it’s emotions or actions. I saw that very clearly with the imagery of the Great Kantō Earthquake. It wasn’t simply documenting this horrendous national tragedy. It was actually producing the way people saw it in retrospect and how they approached rebuilding, and how they approached it, and then it changed over time. It’s not static. So to me, that’s really the core of what I’m looking at, is how art and the visual are actively engaged in producing the world. 

TG: And I understand you’re also teaching a class on a similar topic of how is art and visual culture wrapped up in the foundation of the nation-state and the construction of national identity. So, can you walk us through that course a bit, or walk us through that syllabus and talk about how you’re constructing this class? And what are some of the lessons and what are some of the materials you’re using? 

GW: Yes, this class Imaging a Nation is visual culture 1868-1945, is one of the bread and butter courses that I developed when I got to Duke, and I’ve been teaching it on a pretty regular rotation. Of course, what’s amazing is in the last 10-15 years, how much new scholarship has come out in this area, and it’s so stimulating. I always want to jam more things into this class than I can possibly find because when I started the class, I was often trying to bridge historical texts and put in the visual. And because there were no really good texts, and it was the class I always wish I could take in graduate school or as an upper-level undergraduate…It’s usually taught at the either senior seminar or graduate level. And it was the class I wanted to take, and then as I’ve developed it, I think the scholarship has come and filled it in in such a beautiful way, but it really starts out with that idea. I ask my students when they come in: “What are the new cultural concepts, images and objects that come to mind when you think about creating a nation, if you think about nation-building as a project?” And then we dynamically list and brainstorm about that, and if you think about how many things come into being: the idea of having a national flag, how you define a homeland and create something unified, a motherland, fatherland. What is the notion of sovereignty? How do you visualize the leadership of the country? Is it a monarchy? Is it an imperial household? Is it both? Does it have a parliamentary system? How is government visualized? 

And then, all of the myths and legends and historical foundations that create the background to that nation, how it coalesces, and in that process, of course, we engage these really important concepts like the invention of tradition, the imagined communities, all different kinds of ideas about the ways in which national identity is constructed in a very dynamic and ongoing way. If you’re someone like me, and you’re teaching students who are trying to engage in a visual, it really gives them (students) an active sense of how, for instance, clothing. I mean, I’m very interested in costuming, the sartorial, the vestimentary, and you can’t have a kimono unless you have Western-style clothing because kimono itself as a national dress is defined by the binary of East and West, of Japanese and non-Japanese, and you find that over and over again, that self-definition in relation to “not Japanese.” 

Even national language is defined, and that goes into the art sphere in terms of the creat[ion] of Nihonga, of neo-Japanese style painting, which is a kind of telescoping of many different kinds of artistic traditions that are pre-existed, and a re-naming of it, a re-classification of it in relation to Western-style paintings, so we do a lot on those taxonomies of art. 

We look at the built environment. My students always read Bill Coaldrake’s important book on Meiji architecture. Because what I really love about that book is he’s not only talking about large, symbolic systems in architecture. He’s talking about materials: how is masonry used as opposed to brick as opposed to clapboard as different hierarchies of national building? If you are going to build the Ministry of Justice, it’s going to be in brick. If you’re going to build banks, they’re going to be in masonry. That they have different resonances as actual building materials,  of course, it maps onto cost and expense. I mean, if we go all the way up, of course, to the wartime period, but one of the sections that I absolutely love teaching is on mingei, the folk craft movement, which is in many ways, again, a consummate invention of tradition. 

And since I started teaching this class, there have been at least three books, really interesting books, written on mingei and the ideology of what it means to define folk crafts because we’re not just talking about inside or outside, or Japan/non-Japan, but then we’re talking about urban and rural, we’re talking about the present and modernity, and a perceived, idealized past – a kind of Arcadian village life, and what that means about artisanal and craft traditions. And mingei is a great example of that, whether it’s ceramics or all different other kinds of decorative arts and textiles, print-making. Everything about that is absolutely fascinating, and students really love that, and what’s so great about that is that you can teach that in a global context because one of the things I’m always trying to do is put Japan in relation to the rest of the world. I’m not a “Japan is unique and essentially different than everywhere else.” I’m always trying to think about how Japan is actually similar and paralleling other places, but doing it, perhaps, in different ways. And since the folk craft movement is really a global dynamic if you think about John Ruskin and William Morris, Henry van DeVelde in Belgium. Every modern especially late modernizing countries are thinking about what does handicraft mean in relation to machine production because as you start to get industrialization, objects are more produced industrially, they’re produced by machine, and of course, that creates a special zone for the handcrafted. 

And Japan becomes an inspiration for the rest of the world in terms of its own identity as a place of great artisanal traditions and handicrafts. One thing I jumped over, but is a really critical part of this class that I teach is the world of world’s fairs and global exhibitions, world exhibitions, and I have a whole section on that. They’re known has hakurankai in Japanese and also, there’s a domestic version of it: the industrial domestic expositions that are done within the country. And they’re a really interesting mode of self-representation: one global and one world-facing and international-facing, the other more internally facing. But this idea of exhibitionary space and how you demonstrate progress, but also highlight local culture, ongoing traditions, they’re just a wonderful kind of world to think about that, and of course, they extend to the colonies as well. 

So, I do a lot on colonial exhibitions. They’re a dominant exhibitionary sphere all over the world, and one that Japan in particular uses very effectively in the international theatre. If you think about the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago or you think of St. Louis Exposition, how they fought the Russo-Japanese War actually on the exposition fairgrounds, there’s so much that takes place there, that culture is a really powerful mode of communicating the geopolitics of the time period. 

TG: And it’s at those expositions where these things like mingei cultural crafts and all these other images of Japan are really propagated and sold to the rest of the world. And this topic of corporate advertising design is something that you’re also working on as well, is that correct? 

GW: (Laughter) Yes, it absolutely is. I guess this goes back to the madness and slightly zig-zagging trajectory. But actually, my interest in corporate advertising came directly out of my study of the prewar avant-garde because one of the things that they were advocating for was breaking down the boundaries between fine art and daily life, and ways in which art could impact or could shape the modern world in which people were living. Again, that’s in response to the segmenting off of art into academies, and creating this idea of an edifying art, which goes back to the whole salon tradition of Europe. 

So, Japan had a very engaged, immersed kind of artisanal tradition, and then you get this whole superimposition of a notion of high art and then the avant-garde comeback, and they say: “No, we want an art of daily life.” And when they’re doing that, they’re getting very involved in design because a lot of the new companies that are coming to create new commodities are transforming urban life and transforming the world around them. Even though it might seem like a contradiction because a lot of them had leftist leanings, they really saw this world as very liberating and possibly areas where they could have important social impacts, and they really went into those areas with gusto, and I was just amazed to find out how many artists (some Mavoers but artists of that generation) were working hand in hand with companies like Shiseidō or Kao Soap, Morinaga Confectionery, Meiji Chocolate, and all of them are well over 100 year companies now. These are companies that were really just starting to establish themselves in the ‘10s and ‘20s, and come into their own in the ‘30s, and that’s exactly when modern art and modernism and the modern design movement of commercial design was taking hold. 

Graphic design…the term “graphic design” wasn’t coined until 1922, which is interesting, and obviously, people were doing advertising before that, but this idea of the modern graphic designer is a 1920s phenomenon. So, it’s absolutely parallel with when Mavo and the avant-garde is coming into being. And then if you think about the Russian avant-garde that were so interested in agitprop and art as a means of visual communication, it’s really natural to think about how design comes out of modernism and the avant-garde during that time period, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to see a lot of the corporate archives. 

As we know, Japan is an archiving country. Despite the fact that they’ve had so many incredible, catastrophic disasters, companies managed to keep incredible inventories and archives of their activities, and they are interested in studying themselves, and they keep great records. So, I’ve been able to go back and look at how these companies defined their own brands visually, how those emerged, and even how involved company presidents were in designing those brands and writing catch copy for advertising and working with artists. So, it’s a really exciting time period because it’s just becoming professionalized, but it’s not outsourced to big advertising companies the way you would think of it now, of Dentsu and Hakuhōdō and those kinds of companies that do it now. At that time, it was done in house by designers or by freelancers who were hired who were in the same company as all of these artists who were protesting out in Ueno Park and were in this kind of heady environment of the avant-garde. So, it’s very fluid. 

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening. 


*Citation for this episode: 

Gennifer Weisenfeld, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, September 21, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-62-dr-gennifer-weisenfeld-duke/

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.