Reinventing Tokyo: Ambitious Exhibition at Amherst’s Mead Art Museum Chronicles Tokyo’s Many Transformations

Submitted on Tuesday, 10/9/2012, at 5:04 PM

October 4, 2012

By Peter Rooney

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Night in Shinjuku (Shinjuku yakei), from the series Fifteen Scenes of Last Tokyo in Original Woodcut (Tokyo kaiko zue), by Maekawa Senpan (1888–1960), is one of the images featured in the Mead Art Museum's exhibition Reinventing Tokyo: Japan’s Largest City in the Artistic Imagination.

AMHERST, Mass.—Reinventing Tokyo: Japan’s Largest City in the Artistic Imagination, on view through December, is the most ambitious exhibition in the history of Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum. It is the first exhibition in the United States, and perhaps the Western Hemisphere, to artistically examine Tokyo and its various transformations—by fire in the 19th century, the catastrophic earthquake of 1923, the firebombing in World War II and modern industrialization and development—over the past 145 years.

“This exhibition is unprecedented in the West in both its historical reach and its focus on documenting the transformations the city underwent multiple times between 1868 and the present,” said curator Samuel Morse, the Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations at Amherst College. “It also is distinctive in that brings together artists that, in Japan, are most often shown separately. At the Mead, we have the opportunity to juxtapose the work of printmakers from the 19th century and photographers from the late 20th century, many of whom depict the same locales.”

Morse also edited an exhibition catalogue that features striking images along with essays by him and other noted contributors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian (and Amherst alumnus) John W. Dower; Trent Maxey, associate professor of Asian languages and civilizations and history at Amherst; Timothy Van Compernolle, who teaches Japanese literature at Amherst; and renowned Japanese art critic Yamashita Yūji.

Elizabeth Barker, director of the Mead, noted that Reinventing Tokyo is emblematic of college and university art museums taking bold intellectual risks to offer thought-provoking, comprehensive and stimulating exhibitions that are about more than drawing crowds.

“This is a really serious show that’s unusual in its combination of art forms,” she said. “It’s wide-ranging, and the scholarly book accompanying the exhibition takes brave steps in placing these discrete objects in a very bold context. This is exactly the sort of risk-taking stance that we as a college museum are able to take but that museums concerned with box office are often not.”

The result is a carefully selected group of more than 100 prints, photographs, paintings and textiles (including a kimono from ca. 1930 featuring a painted depiction of a baseball player) that document the changes that took place as the planet’s largest urban conglomeration evolved, transforming from a pre-modern city ruled by a warlord in 1868, to a modern city modeled on Western capitals before World War II, to a global economic powerhouse during the postwar decades and finally to the profoundly influential global metropolis of today. For Tokyo’s residents and the artists who depict the city, modernization and Westernization are always in competition with its traditional past, Morse noted.

“The exhibition tries to chronicle these transformations by focusing on the complexity of the careers of each artist rather than letting one single image stand for them across their entire career,” Morse said. “We are able to show both a print and a painting by Kobayashi Kiyochika of the Asakusa fire of 1881, for example, and include work from different moments in an artist’s career. In the case of Hamaya Hiroshi, he’s best known for protest photographs in 1960. However, he starts his career as a modernist photographer in the 1930s, and there are less-well-known photos by him from that period as well.  These were artists who came of age in the city and worked in the city throughout their lives. Their own artistic evolution is often intimately tied to Tokyo’s history.”

That a groundbreaking exhibition about Japan’s capital city is taking place at Amherst College is historically appropriate. In 1870, Amherst became the first Western academic institution to graduate a Japanese student. Joseph Hardy Neesima had stowed away aboard a clipper ship from Japan while it was still officially “closed” to the West. After earning his Amherst degree, Neesima returned to Japan to found The Doshisha University in Kyoto. Today, with a total enrollment of approximately 30,000 students on four different campuses, Doshisha is one of the oldest and best-known private educational institutions in Japan.

The long-standing relationship between Amherst and Japan has also influenced the Mead’s permanent collection, 44 items from which are on display as part of Reinventing Tokyo. “We’re drawing heavily on our own collection,” Morse said. “Many of our works were acquired to support the exhibition. Especially for the prewar period, the Mead has some really terrific images.  Moreover, a large percentage of the objects that we have brought from Japan are on display in this country for the first time.”

Works are on loan from important private and public collections in Japan and the United States, as well as from the archives of 20th-century photographers. Yamaguchi Hidenori completed one work specifically for the exhibition, using a meticulous ink-painting technique to depict a contemporary industrial suburb.

Tokyo continues its role as a global cultural force, with an ultramodern center that still retains enticing glimpses of its past—if one knows where to find them, noted Morse, whose innovative course at Amherst, also called “(Re)Inventing Tokyo,” explores the city’s past, present and future and incorporates cartography, art history and Google mapping technology.

“Tokyo’s latest reinvention, as portrayed in the exhibition through a number of representative works, is as a site of popular culture, urban chaos and highly sophisticated contemporary design, in terms of architecture and fashion,” he said. “All of these things coexist, and all are built on substrata of the pre-modern city that can still be found if you know where to look. What once was a moat is today a highway or a train line. That’s alluded to in the exhibition as well, and the catalog.”

Reinventing Tokyo remains on view through Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, accompanied by an extensive program of events, all free and open to the public and listed on the museum’s website. The exhibition is made possible with generous support from the David W. Mesker (Class of 1953) Fund, the Hall and Kate Peterson Fund and the Wise Fund for Fine Arts. A grant from the College and University Art Museums Program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided support for Morse’s research as faculty guest curator. A generous grant from the Japan Foundation underwrote the publication of the exhibition catalogue. Grants from the Toshiba International Foundation and John C. Weber, as well as additional support from the John Whitney Hall Fund and the Copeland Colloquium at Amherst College, are funding the related series of events.