The report of the Symposium "John La Farge and Nikko: The Pioneer of the Stained Glass Revival and Japonisme in the USA"


   This is the report of the Symposium ”John La Farge and Nikko: The Pioneer of the Stained Glass Revival and Japonisme in the USA” in the frame of the TGU Research Branding Project of MEXT Japan.

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   The symposium, organized by the TGU Research Branding Project, was held on 24th February from 13:00 to 18:00 in the Hall of the Hoy Memorial Building The title of the symposium was “John La Farge and Nikko: The Pioneer of the Stained Glass Revival and Japonoisme in the USA.”

   John La Farge(1835-1910)is not famous in Japan, but in the USA he is known as a mystical and religious painter and as an inventor of new stained glass techniques. He came to Japan in 1886 and stayed three months, and he was especially impressed by mountainous Nikko and the mausoleum complex of Tokugawa Ieyasu. After his return from Japan, he published his letters from Japan, first serially in a popular magazine and later as a book. He was a pioneer of American Japonisme and can be said to be the most important artist to travel between the USA and Japan in the early modern era.

   To open the symposium, the TGU President Nobuo MATSUMOTO addressed the audience members with gratitude for their interest in TGU project and explained the aim and purpose of the TGU Research Branding Project.
   Then, as a first speaker, Professor of the Faculty of Letters Michitaka SUZUKI reported, with regret, the demise of Professor Emeritus Akiko MURAKATA who was to have provided a keynote lecture for the symposium. He also expressed gratitude for her rich research on the topic of American-Japanese relations in art, especially concerning the scholar Ernest Fenollosa and the American expatriate in Japan, William Sturgis Bigelow. He dedicated the symposium to her memory. Professor Suzuki also explained why John La Farge had been selected as the topic of the symposium. John La Farge, he explained, invented completely new stained glass techniques, and his work can shed light on the Gothic Revival stained glass of 1932 in the TGU Chapel, which itself was the starting point of the TGU Research Branding Project. Moreover, John La Farge exhibited great understanding of the Japanese animistic sensibility while staying in Nikko (the most sacred place in northern Japan and 250km from Sendai). He stayed in Nikko for one month in the summer of 1886, and wrote that “the Great Pan might still be living here.” La Farge also showed distrust of a strict reliance on logic, which is Buddhist par excellence. His paintings also shows the blurring of distinctions between a representation (an image) and what is represented. But Prof. Suzuki insisted that La Farge never imagined that his works possessed an actual soul or spirit.

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   Then independent researcher Koji ARIKI followed, with his talk “<Outside> within the Occidentalism/Modernization of the Japanese Meiji era; or is Ernest Fenollosa a descendant of <marranos>?”. As the nearest student of the deceased Professor MURAKATA, he began his talk with some episodes of his study under her tutelage more than 30 years ago. Professor MURAKATA, in her last letter to him, wondered whether Ernest Fenollosa, who helped La Farge while staying in Japan, was a descendent of Spanish Sephardim. Fenollosa was an important figure for the reevaluation of Japanese art and Buddhism in Japan. Fenollosa’s background will help us understand why he became Buddhist in 1885, in the Miidera Temple in Otsu.

   Associate Professor Phylis FLOYD of Michigan State University presented a talk titled “John La Farge: Bridging American and Japanese Spirituality.” First, she showed many examples connecting the evaluation of Japanese art in the early modern West with the neo-medievalist movement. She also showed examples of Japanese art that La Farge could have known and used for his works. Professor Floyd especially focused on the “eye education” that La Farge’s contemporaries thought could take the place that religion had in the past. La Farge made many contributions to these efforts toward “eye education” in public works including his stained glass and murals.

   Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor Katie KRESSER then delivered a talk titled “The World Re-Enchanted: John La Farge and the Lesson of Nikko”. She described La Farge’s deep commitment to Japanese spirituality, and she noted how La Farge, inspired by the “living art” of Japan, developed his own idea of “living art” as relational rather than animated or inspirited. In Japan, La Farge found primordial art instincts still intact – instincts that modernization in the west has destroyed. This made him feel that Japan could be a beacon for the West.  

   The last speaker was a curator from Saitama Prefectual Museum, Ryoko GOMI, whose talk was titled “Japan Meets La Farge: Japan’s Modernization ≈ Westernization and Globe Trotters.” She discussed episodes of encounter between Japan and the West in general, and described La Farge as a Globe trotter who pursued both Nirvana and bric a brac. Actually, however, these travelers found themselves to be mirrors of the others they encountered. Both the Japanese and the Western travelers, seeing themselves through each-others eyes, were moved to re-evaluate their own cultures in a new light.

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   After a break, there was a 40-minute discussion during which questions were raised about the present state of research on John La Farge studies, La Farge’s relationship with Tiffany workshop, and attitudes towards the chiaroscuro effect in both the USA and Japan. The audience members presented their questions in English and produced their own translations, all with a very productive and open- minded, academic attitude. The discussion lasted until 18:10, ten minutes longer than planned. 

   In general, John La Farge’s reputation has been rehabilitated since the passing of exclusively modernist values. Much was learned in this symposium, but there are still many other things to learn. There was no reference, for example, to La Farge’s “second paradise” in the South Pacific, nor was there substantial discussion of his first “Paradise” – the suburb with that name in Newport, Rhode Island. As the first study conference on La Farge in Japan, and perhaps in the world, we should survey and get to know his whole body work from the beginning. We will leave this task for the next conference.

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