We recommend two recent art books. The History of Japanese Photography (Yale University Press) with 356 color illustrations, 50 black-and-white photographs and six essays, was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name that toured the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this year. In Michelangelo's Florence Piet (Princeton University Press), Prof. Jack Wasserman employs computer modeling techniques to break new ground in art historical scholarship and reach startling conclusions about a major work by Michelangelo.
Ignored Until Now
In her introduction to The History of Japanese Photography, Anne Wilkes Tucker states that Westerners have ignored Japanese photography until now. Photography came to Japan from Europe. Its spread, beginning in the 1850s, paralleled Japan's Westernization.
Like their Western counterparts, Japanese photographers recorded wars and explorations. They followed Japanese art traditions by producing many landscapes and mounting some on scrolls. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Japanese photographed famous places (Mount Fuji), made portraits of ordinary people and celebrities (the Emperor), produced elegant pinups (100 Beauties of Tokyo), and made pictures of faked-up samurai, geishas and "quaint customs" for the tourist trade.
Serious photographers organized into clubs and published journals. Working with European equipment and in modified Western styles, they produced work like Umesaka Ori's Pumpkin (1930). In April of 1931, a German "International Traveling Photography Exhibition" came from Stuttgart to Japan and created great excitement in the photographic community. The 1,180 works in this show comprised everything that was happening in Europe -- art and documentary photography, x-rays, microscopy and much more.
Japanese photographers absorbed European Modernism, publishing work by Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Alex Renger-Patsch and others in their journals. Koishi Kiyoshi's surrealistic Drunken Dream, Fatigue (1936) and Hisano Hisashi's Untitled (1939), with two embracing coats, are products of this tendency. Much Japanese avant-garde photography seems self-conscious because Modernism grew out of European conditions. Takeba Joe, one of the essayists in this volume, states that Japanese photographers never fully digested artistic influences from abroad.
As Japan became increasingly militaristic in the late 1930s and 1940s, photographers adopted more realistic styles. Hamaya Hiroshi objected to the use of his work for war propaganda and fled Tokyo to settle in the snow country on Japan's northern coast where he documented folk life. Hiroshi's Singing During the Torioi Ceremony, Niigata (1940) dates from this period.
Westerners have few problems understanding contemporary Japanese photography because it is much like our own. Nagano Shigeichi's An elderly couple on a pilgrimage in mourning for their son killed in the war, Tokushima (Dainichiji Temple) (1956) depicts the universal loss that war brings. Miyamoto Ryuji's Pavilion of Tsukuba Expo '85 (1985) shows two half-destroyed futuristic buildings from a trade exposition. The Japanese can be wasteful too. Toshio Shibata's Tajima Town, Fukushima Prefecture (1989) shows a retaining wall for a public work. Undulating geometry marries the wall to the landscape. It seems almost alive.
Why Did He Do It?
Michelangelo produced three sculptures of the Madonna holding the dead Christ in her lap (called the Piet). The first (1498-99) at St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, is the one we all know. The second (ca. 1550?) is at the Museo Civico in Milan.
The third, called the Florence Piet, and the subject of Prof. Wasserman's Michelangelo's Florence Piet, was started about 1550. Michelangelo worked fitfully on this sculpture for about a decade, attacked it one day with a hammer and chisel, seriously damaged it, was stopped by a servant, and never touched the work again. Partially repaired, the Florence Piet passed through many hands and finally ended up in the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence.
This episode has puzzled scholars for centuries. Why did Michelangelo mutilate his own work? Did he want to destroy it or did he have a new design in mind?
Wasserman subjects the Florence Piet to art historical analysis, but goes one giant step further by enlisting IBM engineers to create a computer-generated virtual model of the work. Now, instead of working with a heavy, fragile sculpture in situ, Wasserman has a model that he can manipulate on a computer screen. He can tilt the work backwards, lift up either side, and view it in ways that were physically impossible before. As a result, he discovers previously unimaginable detail and perspectives.
Michelangelo's Florence Piet comes with a CD-ROM that lets the reader view and manipulate the virtual model as Wasserman did. Videos show the Florence Piet from numerous angles. There are useful presentations by the author and IBM engineers.
Wasserman concludes that Michelangelo attacked his sculpture because he wanted to change it. He says that Michelangelo had left himself enough marble to create a new design. Is Wasserman right or wrong? Let the specialists debate. One thing is for sure: This brilliant, path-breaking scholar has taken art history into a new realm. Michelangelo's Florence Piet is a superb book that will become a classic.