Nihonga Meets Gu Kaizhi: A Japanese Copy of a Chinese Painting in the British Museum

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Recently, a new attitude of pluralism in the West and elsewhere toward the diverse cultures of the globe has spurred the wider use of a notion of "world art" or "world cultures." There are now museum collections and university departments of world art. Some of the world's largest and oldest museums have redefined themselves as "the universal museums."' Among them, the British Museum, keeper of many artifacts long removed from their cultures of origin for ethnographic study, now sets out, by conserving, publishing, and exhibiting its collections, to "illuminate world cultures."2 Designed to enrich the understanding of cultures across the globe, this notion of "world art" would seem to mark a historical break with the imperialist attitude of the modern great powers toward other cultures.

Indeed, in globalization has come a change etched, by way of example, in the study over the last two decades of one of the world's great works of art, Diego Velazquez's 1656 painting Las meninas. In August 1985, the Illustrated London News published the results of a survey to identify the world's greatest painting; by a clear majority, the panel of experts (of Western art) selected Las meninas.''' In 2003, a new examination of this painting from a leading university press appeared in a series with the qualified title Masterpieces of Western Painting* Any sense that the greatest achievements in the history of art "necessarily" happened in Europe, or in Europe first, seems to have given ground to a recognition that great artworks appear from different cultures, and that these examples of world art may be studied comparatively.

The study of Chinese art, to take one of the world's great art traditions, may be considered fundamentally historical, or one may prefer social or poststructural models. In all cases, though, it involves the investigation of the art of that culture and region.5 In a sense, then, the study of world art amounts to the investigation of master-works and artifacts of discrete national or regional cultures; it puts into wider play the distinct cultural paradigms of a given tradition, such as the calligraphically informed outline mode in East Asian painting. But what if a significant work of art has fallen between these national or regional histories, in that it may not easily be identified as belonging to any one culture? The making of the painting to be investigated here is such a one, being a powerful example both of the modern cross-fertilization of and comparison of cultures. It broadens and colors the concept of "world art" by bringing specific regional paradigms, such as the ink outline, before a world audience. At the same time, it exposes a network of historical roots behind the present transformation of world arts and cultures into "world art."

The object in question is a painting transcription of the Admonitions of the Court Instructress picture scroll (Chinese: Nushi then tujuan, Fig. 1 ), one of the treasures in the British Museum. It was collaboratively made at the British Museum in 1923 by Kobayashi Kokei (1883-1957) and Maeda Seison (1885-1977), two masters of Japanese neotraditional painting, Nihonga. Since 1924, this Copy of the Admonitions of the Court Instructress (Japanese: Joshi shin zukan no mosha; Figs. 2-8, 14, 19) has been in the collection of Tohoku University Library in Sendai in northeastern Japan.

When they made the copy-on their joint tour to Europe in 1922-23, a turning point in their careers-both these painters, aged forty and thirty-eight respectively, were up-and-coming second-generation artists of the Nihonga school in Japan. The established history of Japanese art shows that the two painters returned to Japan in 1923 not only embracing Western classicism (yoga, or "foreign painting" techniques) but also, through their work on the Admonitions, having rediscovered some of the basics of East Asian painting: modulation of line, harmony of color wash, and concern with presenting the immanence of a subject. …