When next you’re in the museum, seek out the niches on either side of the Asian gallery, where we recently changed the Indian miniature paintings and Japanese woodcuts. We regularly rotate art in these areas for two reasons: since we have a substantial works on paper collection and want to give visitors a sense of the range; also, many of our works on paper are light sensitive, especially the Indian Miniatures and Japanese prints, and we can’t leave them out permanently lest the images slowly disappear. Among my duties is to regularly select new groups of Indian miniatures and Japanese prints to go on display in the small niches.
The Indian miniatures niche now holds images of Hinduism, particularly of the life of Krishna, selected with the advice of Professor Emeritus Joan Raducha. Krishna was a material manifestation in the world (an avatar, if the word hasn’t been skewed by the movies) of the supreme being Vishnu. Krishna’s Sanskrit name translates as “black” or “dark,” so he is usually portrayed with black or, as in most of these images, blue skin. The largest work on display, The Transfer of Babes, shows scenes from the story of his birth. It was foretold that he would destroy an evil king, who therefore tried to kill Krishna at birth. Krishna was miraculously protected—in the painting his father slips past sleeping guards and escapes from the King’s prison, crosses a river protected by a giant snake, and delivers the baby Krishna to a family of herders. Popular images of Krishna show him as a young adult, and he is often depicted with his consort Radha and a group of lovely Gopi (usually translated as cowherding women).
Unknown (Indian), The Transfer of Babes, early 19th century, watercolor, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 11 3/4 x 18 7/8 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Earnest C. Watson, 69.28.16
One image in this niche doesn’t feature Krishna—an illustration of Devagandhari Ragini. This painting is based on a ragini, a musical piece from a large series called the Ragamala. Each of the ragas and raginis that make up the Ragamala represents a particular season or time of day; each is also associated with a mood. The depicted Devagandhari Ragini is to be performed in the morning hours, and its mood is one of supplication, interpreted in this case as a woman doing her devotion by garlanding a lingam with blossoms. Look closely at the image of a woman worshiping in the painting—the centers of her earrings and some other bits of jewelry are inset with iridescent insect parts to give them a dark glitter.
These Indian miniatures were all intended as manuscript illustrations, which explains their small scale. While the prints in the Japanese niche were not tied to particular stories or bound into texts, they still refer to literary traditions.
In the Japanese niche we currently display images related to the spectacular samurai armor that is the niche’s centerpiece. The two smaller prints depict samurai in their armor, while the larger prints show warriors in the process of attacking and being attacked by monsters. All of these prints are in wonderful condition, their colors are unfaded, and they are masterfully printed, but I especially like the two large prints, triptychs by Kuniyoshi.
Kuniyoshi was a very popular and prolific designer of prints. Like his master, Toyokuni, he often depicted warriors. The subject of both of these triptychs is Minamoto no Tametomo, a twelfth-century warrior who became the subject of what today we might call historical fiction. He was also portrayed in fantastic prints. In one of those on display, Tametomo Shipwrecked by a Giant Fish is Rescued by Tengu, Tametomo, his wife, and his son are nearly lost at sea when their ship founders in a storm and they are set upon by a giant fish. The despondent Tametomo is on the verge of suicide when he is restrained by ghostly tengus (a usually malevolent birdlike monster) sent by an ancestral spirit. They stabilize the boat and the spirits pacify the fish, saving the family so that Tametomo’s son, cradled by the man astride the fish, can one day become king of Okinawa.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japanese, 1798–1861), Tametomo Shipwrecked by a Giant Fish is Rescued by Tengu, early 1850s, color woodcut. John H. Van Vleck Endowment Fund purchase, 2008.39a–c
The other triptych, Minamoto no Raiko Slaying the Monster Kidomaru, shows Tametomo during the period when he was commissioned by the Emperor to rid the countryside around Raiko of bandits (Tametomo’s name in this print, Minamoto no Raiko, reflects this duty). Kido Maru, a bandit-wizard who learned his magic from tengus (unfriendly ones, apparently), lunges through the soldiers to attack Tametomo as he rides by. The monster is doomed, of course, but this foreknowledge doesn’t detract from the print’s excitement.
I’ve only glossed over the complex and exciting tales that gave rise to these images, but I hope it spurs further interest. One of my favorite ways to enjoy art is learning these stories. It’s a bit like going to the farmers’ market and meeting the folks who make your cheese; knowing where it comes from enhances the flavor. For extra flavor on the life of Krishna there are many websites, but MythFolklore.net has a concise breakdown of Krishna’s historical growth in Hindu literature and notes that many of stories of his early life are gathered in the Bhagavata Purana. Wikipedia has a breakdown of the sections of the Ragamala under Ragamala paintings (though the entry’s links need updating). The Wikipedia entry on the historical Minamoto no Tametomo is useful. Readers of Japanese can find more fanciful tales of him in the book Chinsetsu yumiharizuki by Takizawa Bakin. An excellent book on Kuniyoshi’s work is Timothy Clark’s catalogue Kuniyoshi: From the Arthur R. Miller Collection.
These works on paper will be up until mid-April before they need to be switched out again for other miniatures and prints. Works on paper enthusiasts can also make an appointment in the Print Study Room (call 263-2246) to see their favorite paper-based art.
Posted November 02, 2012 by Susan Day
When you go into a museum, do you wonder why certain artworks “make the cut” and are put on view? Why are they significant; how do they relate to other works in the gallery; why did the artist work in that medium; was the art popular or controversial?
The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910 presents a beautiful selection of Victorian watercolors at the same time it explores some of these questions. Most museum exhibitions are put together by professional curators who have expertise in their subject areas. But how does one learn to be a curator? What’s the difference between an art historian and a curator? How does a curator select works for an exhibition? In organizing this exhibition, undergraduate and graduate students in Nancy Rose Marshall’s Victorian Watercolor Seminar got some real world insight into these questions.
The seminar also sheds light on the value of art historical research and how this scholarship can be shared with a general audience. Students faced behind-the-scenes decisions—like selection and arrangement of works, design elements, and label copy—in thinking about how to inform and communicate essential, engaging points.
Three students from the seminar offer their reflections on the process. Rachel Klimczyk (2012, Art History) talks about the value of historical research to inform a work and also provide a window into the period when it was created, making connections between the past and present.
Albert Goodwin (English, 1845–1932), Hastings at Sunset, 1885, watercolor, 11 3/8 x 17 3/8 in. Joseph F. McCrindle Collection, 2009.13.68
Working on The Golden Age of British Watercolors: 1790–1910 was a wonderful experience. Students don’t often get the chance to plan an exhibition or learn the practical aspects of curating. In planning content for the website and the layout of the exhibition space, we collaborated to tackle problems and create a successful show. We researched artwork individually, but as a class we identified the main themes for a cohesive exhibition.
When researching historical paintings, it is important to trace information about the artists and the works to their original sources. I used contemporary books and articles published about my artists to understand their roles in the late nineteenth century British art world. Albert Goodwin, for example, is mostly unknown today, but was praised by Victorian critics and made a successful living off of his craft.
Original sources are also valuable in understanding why certain styles of art were popular or prevalent at any given time. Purchasers of British watercolors were seeking specific subjects, messages, or styles when they toured exhibitions. Like consumers today, art buyers were inclined to purchase works that resonated personally in some way. Paintings that featured either patriotic themes or offered an emotional thrill (or both, in the case of Goodwin’s Hastings at Sunset) were very marketable.
Pinpointing all the mechanics behind a trend can be difficult, but it is also a rewarding experience. Eventually I discovered important connections between my artists and their society, and between the works I was studying and other works and artists in the exhibition.
Julia Griffith (2012, Interior Design and Art History) learned that research is not a solitary endeavor but one of networking that can lead to accidental and valuable discovery.
William Simpson (Scottish, 1823–99), Elephant Battery, 1864, Watercolor and gouache over graphite, 10 5/8 x 14 1/4 in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.264
The best part about researching and curating an exhibit is working not only with the people in the class but also connecting with others outside of our university.
I wanted access to a book that was too old to travel from the east coast so I got in contact with the curator of the collection at Brown University. He happened to be a scholar of the artist I was researching, William Simpson, and though the book did not hold the information I needed, he passed along some insight instead.
The curator helped me better understand the timing and purpose of Simpson’s Elephant Battery. The artist was creating images for a book about India, and he probably made this painting after returning to England, presumably to depict more war/military scenes than Simpson originally planned. That insight shed light on the subtle messages in the piece.
In addition, the curator shared a military painting from Simpson created during the Afghan conflict in 1879, which is very similar to the India painting in the exhibition. Elephant Battery didn't have a lot of accessible research, so connecting with someone who knew a great deal more than some of the available books was invaluable. This experience taught me that asking a simple question could bring a response you never expected.
Rebekah Rickner (adult student interested in Museum Studies) discovered how much teamwork and problem-solving goes into putting an exhibition together.
Hannah Palmer (English, 1818–93), Street of Tombs, Pompeii, 1838, graphite, watercolor and gouache, 7 1/4 x 10 1/2 in. Edward Blake Blair Endowment Fund and Walter A. and Dorothy Jones Frautschi Endowment Fund purchase, 2004.30
This seminar taught me how to think like a curator. While the two works I researched were aesthetically not my favorites, I enjoyed the challenge of creating narratives that would peak audience interest. Focusing on the female artists’ histories, including family life, social, and political constraints, and artistic background, I hoped to make a visit to the exhibition both informative and, ultimately, memorable.
In this class we learned how a museum plans an exhibition. The importance of grouping works together so the show ‘made sense’ and at the same time was visually pleasing was our primary effort. Of equal significance were issues of font design, wall color, size and placement of vitrines and audiovisual equipment, and lighting.
Perhaps my favorite part of this process was the collaboration between students and museum staff. A successful exhibition requires much more than a background in art history. I felt, in many ways, that the skills of teamwork, negotiation, and even time management—necessitated by print deadlines—were as valuable as our research.
Other assets were the diverse backgrounds of the students as well as the unwavering direction of Professor Marshall, who not only helped us navigate the museum’s internal systems but guided our research as well. In the end, the exhibition far exceeded my expectations.
The experience is enriching for museum staff as well. Says Jerl Richmond, Chief Preparator: “The collaboration of students, faculty, and museum staff makes for an always interesting process of turning concept into reality and theory into practice. Student participation brings fresh perspective and it is rewarding to see the results of all that hard work.”
Exhibitions like The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910 fulfill the museum's teaching, research, and public service mission as we bridge campus and community. Students gain real-world experience and provide invaluable research. The museum, in turn, makes this knowledge accessible to everyone who walks through the door and visits the website. As our mission statement says: the visual arts enrich individual human experience and knowledge of art is essential to understanding diverse cultures, past and present.
The research from this exhibition is available at the Art History Department website.
UW–Madison students Julia Griffith, Rachel Klimczyk, and Rebekah Rickner contributed to this blog post.
The museum has a very nice selection of fan prints on display in Summer Breeze: The Fan in Japanese Prints, in the Garfield Gallery until the September 9. These prints have been in the collection since 1980, but they are rarely on view. One challenge of exhibiting them is putting them in context. Explaining a fan may seem unnecessary, but when most people think of fans they think of the folding variety, not the rigid fans these prints were designed to be. I decided that a two-part exhibition would help people appreciate the ubiquity of fans in Japanese culture; one part would show scenes in which fans were used, and the other part would include prints made to be cut out and pasted onto a splayed bamboo support to make a nonfolding Japanese fan—an uchiwa.
I spent a good deal of time looking through the collection for prints with fans in them: carried as fashion accessories and for cooling, held by actors as stage props, and used by print designers as a cartouche motif. In the midst of this I recalled that we have some very nice sumo prints in the collection (one of which, above, depicts the first two sumo wrestlers to receive the highest rank of yokozuna in their lifetimes). In some of these prints referees use a fan—a gunbai, or battle fan—during the wrestling match.
Gunbai have a long history. Usually made of wood, the gunbai is traditional equipment for military leaders, who used it to direct movements on the battlefield. From there it was elaborated into an elegant item for samurai, sometimes beautifully lacquered and decorated. By the late 18th-century the gunbai had made it’s way into the sumo ring; the referee uses the fan to indicate the winning wrestler.
The gunbai’s association continues to develop. A quick Googling of the word brings up interesting Japanese popular cultural references, including the giant gunbai used as a weapon or shield in the long-running Naruto manga and anime series.
Uchiwa, it turns out, have an interesting double existence in Japanese culture—at once as an elegant item for keeping cool in the summer heat, and also as a component of the samurai’s martial equipment. It’s is probably inevitable that such a basic and useful object of material culture should be imbued over the centuries with many layers of meaning.
Image: Katsukawa Shunsho (Japanese, 1726–1792), The Wrestlers Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onogawa Kisaburo with the Umpire Kimura Shonosuke, 1780–1785, color woodcut, 375 x 506 mm. Bequest of John H. Van Vleck, 1980.3037