11 March 2013


Foujita with a feline friend. Image courtesy of The Cultural Cat

Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita
(1886-1968) was a painter and printmaker who was prominent in Europe and Japan throughout his long career but is relatively unknown today outside of Japanese art circles. I have a soft spot for those dynamic characters whose stories somehow become buried in history despite their huge cultural strides (see "Professor" Richard Risley Carlisle, for instance), and Foujita's life and work are immensely inspiring to me. The only known work of his in a U.S. museum is in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (Portrait of Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1922), but hundreds of his paintings, prints, drawings and watercolors are held in public and private collections around the world. I just finished Phyllis Birnbaum's excellent biography Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita--the Artist Caught Between East and West and have been obsessed lately with learning as much as I can about this fascinating person who was one of modern Japan's most prominent global artists.

I actually first learned about Foujita when I was studying at Waseda University from 2005-2006. I found my way to his huge 2006 career retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo-- a rare exhibit that featured dozens of his paintings. It was so crowded that I could barely move, let alone get close enough to see the details of the works. But, I remember that I was immediately struck by how "creamy" his paintings were. The colors were so beautifully saturated and blended to a smooth, almost iridescent sheen. Foujita's ease with fusing the medium of oil painting with the technique of Japanese ink painting is unlike anything that I think we will ever see again.

And, I love his cat paintings! He lovingly captures every hair, whisker, and snaggle-toothed grin. You can feel the deep love that he has for cats, and he truly captures their essences. Many of his self portraits and press photos feature him cuddling up with a cat.

According to several sources in Birnbaum's book, Foujita's greatest talent was his charm. Although he lead a incredibly disciplined life and was deadly serious about his work and reputation (he refused to touch even a drop of alcohol), he was not afraid to be the life of the party and knew how to make fast friends wherever he went. He also understood the powers of persona and personal style, and he painstakingly crafted a public image that was not just unique, but extraordinary. He was so well known on the streets of 1920s Paris that a department store there used mannequins fashioned in his likeness!

I was re-working a paper that I had written on contemporary Japanese artists living and working outside of Japan and decided to re-aquaint myself with Foujita's world. I dove right into Glory In A Line and immensely enjoyed learning more about the intricacies and controversies of this man's life. Birnbaum is a true Japan scholar, and she conducted an exhaustive examination of a person whose legacy continues to provoke. I appreciated how she broke up the narrative of Foujita's life into short, fact-filled thematic essays and occasionally included asides featuring anecdotes wrapped up in some of the interviews with her sources. She is especially skilled at presenting the stories of Foujita's women without allowing their voices to color the story (a challenge that she readily acknowledges to the reader, given her background and speciality in giving voice to the lives of historical Japanese women). The book flows along, highlighting times good and bad, extravagant and humble, but by the chapters outlining Foujita's involvement in WWII as a war artist for the Japanese effort, things get a bit sticky. I feel that this isn't necessarily the writer's fault, and if anything it's a reflection on how the last third of Foujita's life was filled with personal and political tensions. Birnbaum also clearly shows how difficult of an endeavor it was to present Foujita in an objective light. He is still a controversial figure in Japan mainly because of his contributions to WWII, but also because of some lingering discomfort with his ultimate decision to leave the Japanese art world behind and settle in France after the war.  The only thing that was disappointing in the book was the lack of actual reproductions of Foujita's art. Birnbaum discusses a number of works at length, but only a few are included as black and white plates. I had to spend a good amount of time cross-referencing and tracking down paintings in online archives while reading, and even then some of my searches to find certain works were fruitless. I suspect, though, that this lack of context is due to issues with permissions for images. Even nearly a hundred years after his heyday, Foujita's world is still very much behind closed doors.

What I enjoy most about studying Foujita's body of work is that it reflects many of the themes that I am obsessed with researching: Japanese artists working abroad, national artistic identity, and multiculturalism in art styles. He was certainly an artist who was comfortable moving between places and cultures, but with this came a heartbreak that is all too familiar to the life of the ex-pat. He seemed to fit in everywhere and nowhere, and although it must have been a burden at times, Foujita refused to compromise his strong style and sense of pride. In his art and in his life story, he shares great lessons about the power and possibility of following one's path with unbridled passion. 

14 February 2013

Traveling Kevin J. Miyazaki's "Perimeter"

My Japanese "sisters" came to visit me in my hometown of Milwaukee one summer years ago. Every time we would drive by Lake Michigan, they would remark, "Ahh, it looks just like the ocean!" It really does. People actually call it the "Michigan Ocean." Unless it's an very unusually clear summer day, it's impossible to see across to the other side.

Having grown up no less that five miles away from such a large body of water, I think that I have been unconsciously programmed to automatically feel uncomfortable if I am too far from any kind of water mass. I actually get anxious if I'm landlocked for too long! There's something calming and cleansing about staring off across the water. Some of my greatest realizations have come to me just by sitting next to Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean or the Mississippi River.

Gallery installation of "Perimeter: Photographs by Kevin J. Miyazaki"

I know that I'm far from alone in my own appreciation for the reflective powers of water, and I was thrilled to share a fascinating photography project at TCD by Milwaukee-based photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki. Commissioned by and on display at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art, "Perimeter" is the result of Miyazaki's exploration of the themes of fresh water and the Great Lakes. He spent two weeks traveling as close to Lake Michigan's perimeter as possible, photographing and interviewing over 200 people along the way. What emerges is a portrait of Lake Michigan through literal (lake views) and metaphorical (portraits) personas. A part of this multifaceted project is on view in a site-specific installation at the museum, but the artist's website features it in its entirety.

07 February 2013

Can you design desire?

Photograph by J. Sattell
 Hello hello!

I wrote a little something over at Third Coast Digest earlier this week about an exhibit at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) that is closing soon: "Designing Desire: The Cultural Effects of Marketing"

"Designing Desire" encourages us to take a closer look at who is exactly calling the shots in our day-to-day lives... which are, for better or worse, inextricably tied to our identities as consumers. What are we buying, and why? How does design shape our desires for products? And, what (or who) is it that drives the messages behind the thousands of commercial messages that bombard us daily?

This show doesn't exactly set out to make "bad guys" out of advertisers and marketing executives, but it does cast a critical eye on the industry as a whole. You'll leave, perhaps ironically, a smarter consumer in the process.

24 January 2013

JET Alum Artist Beat: Joshua Powell, Book Designer and Illustrator

The latest installment in my JET Alum Artist Beat interview series over at JETWit.com features Joshua Powell, a Seattle-based book designer and illustrator whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the years. Josh and I collaborated on a number of projects while working with Seattle publisher Chin Music Press, a indie dedicated to artfully revitalizing paper-and-ink books through quality printing and content-honoring design. Like me, after graduating from college he lived in Japan to participate in the JET Program, and that experience continues to shape his career.

Joshua's original illustrations for a timeline of Chef Shiro Kashiba's life, from "Shiro: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer" (Chin Music Press). Image courtesy of Joshua Powell.
Especially inspiring about Josh's design philosophy is that it is based on an idea that he calls "slow books" (like "slow food" or "slow travel"), or as he describes:

"Trying to retain the enjoyment of long-form reading, and of experiencing a sort of atmosphere and extended connection with the text and design. An experience that is drawn out and prolonged over time as well as something that comes from a physical object that you would want to keep and hold onto, returning to it months or years later."

Out of all of the books that Josh has designed, Shiro: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer remains my favorite, and that's not just because I'm a huge Japanophile/snobby sushi lover/avid nonfiction reader. It is a prime example of a "slow book" that holistically tells the life story of Shiro Kashiba, the man who is thought to have been the first to bring traditional sushi to the Pacific Northwest.  If you have yet to see it in person, head to the food section of your local bookstore and check it out-- I guarantee that it is not like every other cookie-cutter cookbook-memoir that they sell at Williams-Sonoma. It is worth buying for the visuals alone: 1960s Seattle tourist ephemera, Josh's original illustrations, and priceless photos of Shiro hiking in the mountains outside of Tokyo with Jiro Ono (yes, the Jiro Ono of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame).

25 November 2012

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe

I started writing Japan-focused nonfiction and art book reviews for JQ Magazine this fall, and my first piece for them was published online yesterday: JQ Magazine: Book Review'Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West' 

I had heard about Professor Risley in its early stages from Stone Bridge Press (and saw some stunning promo images of Victorian Japanese circus ephemera), and I was immediately intrigued! Author Frederik L. Schodt is a writer, scholar and cultural observer whom I greatly admire, and his latest project was so much fun to read and review. You can just feel from his writing how excited he was about this project! I think that Fred has greatly inspired my generation of Japan observers and academics for his work in Japan-US cultural relations, and his work truly shows that popular culture has immense power in shaping our mindsets, histories and interactions. Check out this extensive, inspiring interview with Fred by my colleague, Justin Tedaldi.

As you can probably tell from my review below, I really enjoyed exploring this fascinating era of performing arts history. This book highlights an amazing chapter in Japanese cultural studies that, until now, was only known to niche academics and circus aficionados.

Book Review: Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—And Japan to the West
by Jessica Sattell
Originally published at JQ Magazine, 11/24/2012

Image courtesy of Stone Bridge Press
We’re still riding the “Cool Japan” wave that crested at the turn of the millennium, but our fascination with the country and its culture didn’t quite stem from just anime, Harajuku fashions, or J-pop. In Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West, award-winning author Frederik L. Schodt argues that contemporary interest in Japan’s popular culture has its roots in the travels and cross-cultural interactions of a band of 19th century Japanese circus performers and a colorful American impresario.

Published in November by Stone Bridge Press, Professor Risley explores a critical and exciting time in history, when an interest in foreign cultures was rapidly expanding beyond the privileged parlors of the upper class and Americans and Europeans were greatly fascinated by anything Japanese. Schodt offers an intriguing case study of both early Japanese conceptions of the West and the West’s first looks at modern Japan, but it is also a mystery of sorts: Why did a group of acrobats that were incredibly popular with international audiences in the 1860s fade from the annals of performing arts history? How was the life of “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, arguably one of the most extraordinarily talented and well-traveled performing artists in history, buried in the folds of time? Schodt suggests that we may never know the answers, but we can sit back and enjoy the show as their histories unfold.

This story begins, fittingly, with the question, “Where Is Risley?” Schodt artfully traces “Professor” Risley’s early travels and performance history like an elusive game of connect-the-dots, piecing together itineraries, publicity notices and press clippings until a clear pattern of a fascinating life emerges. Risley seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, and led a full life of jet-setting and adventure-seeking at a time where transcontinental travel was only beginning to open up to those outside of the diplomatic realm. We follow him on a decades-long journey across the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, China…and finally to Japan.

Risley arrived in Yokohama in early 1864 and immediately went to work setting up a fantastic Western-style circus to delight foreign residents and Japanese locals alike. As the country had re-opened to the world just five years earlier, it was a risky time to be in Japan, and non-Japanese residents lived with underlying worries of Shogunate-dictated expulsion and violence from disgruntled ronin. That didn’t quite stop Risley’s entrepreneurial spirit, but he did eventually run into a series of difficulties with his shows—and a stint in dairy farming, which, in the process, led him to introduce ice cream to Japan. He hadn’t originally intended to stay in Japan for long, but most likely due to the Civil War raging back home in America, he bided his time and explored his options. Thankfully, his stay there—paired with an almost desperate talent for improvisation—would lead to the world’s first taste of Japanese popular culture.

At Risley’s arrival, Japan already had a solid and intricate history of circus acts and exhibitions (misemono), and Japanese performers were all the rage with Yokohama’s foreign community. Eventually, he invited local artists to perform in his theater, and while it’s not exactly known what prompted Risley to take a Japanese troupe of performers on to travel in America and Europe, it’s obvious that the idea stemmed from seeing glowing audience reactions to renditions of the beautiful “butterfly trick” (using a fan to make little origami butterflies appear to flit and flutter), top spinning and juggling. After the necessary arrangements of investors and contracts (as well as securing passports, which had never before been issued to Japanese civilians), Risley left Japan in late 1866 with eighteen acrobats, magicians, top-spinners, musicians, costumers and administrators, also known as the “Imperial Japanese Troupe.”

In the latter half of the book, Schodt painstakingly retells the intricate details, scandalous trials and wild successes of the troupe’s world travels with a detective’s logic and the help of a wellspring of primary material: the diary of Hirohachi (Hamaikari Iwakichi), the group’s manager. We follow the artists across the metropolises of America and to the grand 1867 Paris Exposition, to the rural towns of England and eager audiences in Holland, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal. We fall in love with the star of the show, “Little All Right” (Hamaikari Umekichi), a charming and fearless preadolescent boy who took to confidently shouting “all right!” and “you bet!” after nailing his death-defying acrobatic acts. And most of all, we are easily transported across time, space and place to worlds of Victorian intrigue and remarkable creativity.

The Imperial Japanese Troupe captured the hearts of thousands, spawned a wide array of imitators, and inspired artists, poets and musicians with their talent and professionalism (as a Wisconsin native, I would have loved to have heard the “All Right Polka”). Schodt’s study argues that the group and their performances in the U.S. and Europe have effects that ripple today; their travels triggered the West’s first wave of interest in Japanese popular culture, and for the first time, Japan was seeing the West. The echoes of a craze for all things Japanese would soon find new footing in the aesthetic movement of Japonisme, and Western technologies and philosophies streaming into Japan at the dawn of the Meiji era helped position the country as a major player in the modern world. The seeds of cross-cultural interaction spread by this small band of traveling performers are still flowering today.

The book is indeed a history of the Imperials, but at the core, it is a portrait of Risley as an extraordinary cultural game changer and a puzzling man. Perhaps Schodt’s greatest successes here are resurrecting both Risley’s larger-than-life persona and recreating the engaging world of 19th century international circus through limited primary source material scattered across the globe. His passion and fascination with his subject is clear from the very start, and the book’s inspiring preface and afterword add warm personal context to the project. Chock-full of illuminating illustrations and gorgeous printed ephemera that would make any contemporary typographer swoon, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is a jet-set adventure in pop culture scholarship sure to appeal to anyone interested in Japan’s history on the world stage.