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Brief conference report: Deconstructing Boundaries: is “East Asian Art History” possible, at SOAS

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This weekend’s two-day conference at SOAS (10-11 October), hosted by the Japan Research Centre, presented some fascinating papers on art history in East Asia. The question it asked – ‘Is “East Asian Art History” possible?’ – is at first sight a puzzling one (why should it not be?), until one scratches below the surface as of course the conference was designed to do. And regardless of the answer the ideas discussed over the two days shouted out an imperative: that East Asian Art History is nevertheless necessary.

Some of the papers emphasised the fact that cross-border cultural flows have been a constant throughout history. Before the Edo period, despite Japan’s proud independence in respect of poetry, made clear in the legend of Haku Rakuten (Chinese poet Po Chu-i ) and Sumiyoshi (the Japanese God of poetry), other artforms were heavily influenced from China. Even during the isolationist Edo period, embassies from Korea brought opportunities for cultural exchange between the mainland and Japan. And in the post-Meiji Restoration period Japan acted as an interface between East Asian and Western ideas, particularly in respect of the territories that were under its colonial rule.

Two papers presented on the Sunday morning highlighted the need for an “East Asian” history, focusing on two Korean-born artists not much discussed today simply because of where they ended their lives. Kim Jong-nam (1914-1986), born in Sancheong, moved to Kyoto during the colonial period, where he was known as Hideo Kaneko, and thence to Tokyo, where finally settled on his third name, Hideo Manabe. After the war he elected to stay in Japan and to cut off relations with his relatives back in Korea. There was some discussion after the paper’s presentation as to whether this decision justified labelling him “pro Japanese”, the conclusion being that his choices were more driven by pragmatism than anything else – he had opportunities, a career and a new family in Japan which were best preserved by distancing himself from the past. But the fact that as a zainichi, Manabe was never going to be fully accepted in Japan, and his preferred avant-garde style (with influences from Henri Rousseau and Max Ernst) at a time when abstract art had been banned by the Japanese military government during the Asia-Pacific War, both suggested that his art rather than nationality came first. As a result of his choices he is not much studied by either Korean or Japanese art historians – though he merits a paragraph in Kim Young-na’s book on 20th Century Korean Art.

Google image search for Pai Un-soung
Google image search for Pai Un-soung

Pai Un-soung is similarly neglected. He was the first Korean artist to study in Europe, where he lived for 18 years and achieved some prominence both as a painter and as maker of woodcuts. At the time Korea had no official status and Pai largely appears in exhibition catalogues of the time as a “Japanese” artist. But although a key patron of his was wealthy Japanese industrialist Baron Mitsui and Pai consequently produced well-executed work that served the interests of his paymaster, Pai had been involved is the March 1st movement, and in a self-portrait as a shaman produced during his time in Europe he paints himself with a taegukgi motif on his belt. Eventually, Pai settled in North Korea, perhaps at the instigation of his wife who was a supporter of the North. As a result, Pai is not studied in South Korea, where the exhibition of works by artists from the North was once banned.

Park Rae-hyun
Google image search for Park Rae-hyun

Both papers suggested that art history written from the perspective of the nation-state would, of necessity, omit, underplay or potentially misrepresent aspects of that history that in whatever way crossed the border. Other papers reinforced the message: Eriko Tomizawa-Kay presented the works of some distinguished non-Japanese alumnae of the Private Women’s School of Fine Arts in Tokyo. Most of the talk focused on He Xiangning, known now as much for her closeness to Sun Yat-sen as for her art, though she is one of the few to have a museum dedicated to her work in Shenzhen ( From Korea, Chun Kyoung-ja was briefly name-checked, but more time was spent on Park Rae-hyun, known for her cubist style painting The Market (1956). Of course the analysis of the work of these artists is complicated by the fact that they were colonial subjects who studied in the colonising metropolis and also by the fact that they were women. Both features are problematic in a world where art history can be both nationalist and male focused.

But other problems arise when approaching art history from a broader East Asian perspective. The picture presented very much depends on who is writing the history. Japan, the first Asian nation to “modernise”, was the country that brought western artistic techniques to East Asia; and it was through Japan that the West began to learn of East Asian art history. Toshio Watanabe cautioned us that the Shinbi taikan, a lavishly-produced series of volumes produced from 1899-1908 (sometimes translated as Selected relics of Japanese art) and which included Chinese artworks in its pages, was in part funded by Buddhist zealots and was designed as a luxury art history for foreigners, having commentaries in English as well as Japanese. Another paper by Malcolm McNeill looked at Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen Buddhist paintings. A provocative statement in a Japanese art historical book claimed “During [the] Ming and after, China had little to offer” – effectively concluding that it was Japan that perfected the art form received from China. McNeill presented counter-examples to show that the painting of Chan Buddhist subjects continued into the Ming dynasty and were very much worthy of attention.

Both of these latter talks of course justified the interrogative in the title of the conference – is East Asian Art History possible? It is hoped that conferences such as this will turn the interrogative into the affirmative.

Thanks to the organisers and sponsors for a hugely stimulating couple of days, of which sadly LKL could only attend a third of the presentations. We thoroughly enjoyed all of the following talks and regretted we couldn’t stay for more:

  • Timon Screech – Understanding the Concept of “Chinese Painting” in the Edo Period
  • Malcolm McNeill – “During [the] Ming and after, China had little to offer”. Contesting chronologies of Chan and Zen Art
  • Toshio Watanabe – Shinbi taikan (1899): the ambivalent role of Chinese art for Japanese Art History
  • Eriko Tomizawa-Kay – The Perception of nihonga by East Asian students at the Private Women’s School of Fine Arts and the development of their paintings in the early 20th Century
  • Ji-young Kim – Hideo Manabe – A forgotten Korean-Japanese Painter Who Stood on the Border
  • Minjong Shin – Marginal man Un-Soung Pai: His European experience, his view and his art
  • Atsushi Miura – The Triangle of Japan’s Modern Yōga: Paris, Tokyo, East Asia


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