New interpretations


The maps, travel guides, photographs, and religious talismans on display in the Smart Museum represent a fraction of the materials Chicago professor Edmund Buckley gathered during his “academic pilgrimage” to Japan from 1886 to 1892. Buckley used the collection for a series of papers on Japanese art, dance, and religion, as well as his dissertation, which earned him a Chicago PhD in 1895. More than 100 years later, Chicago students in a spring 2007 art-history seminar selected pieces from the collection for display and researched the exhibition notes.

The exhibition contrasts multiple representations of similar subjects. For example, two woodblock prints and a household shrine show Benzaiten, the Shinto goddess of knowledge, art, beauty, and music. Both Benzaiten of Itsukushima Island and the deity in the household shrine have eight arms, which link her to the Indian goddess Sarasvati. In these two works, Benzaiten holds symbolic objects associated with both Buddhist and Shinto religions, which often merged in popular religious practices. Local Japanese culture influenced Benzaiten of Enoshima Island; she has only two arms and wears a modest robe, which reflects the simplicity of Japanese religious symbols. She also sits in a cave that evokes the rocky geography of the island.

The focus of the spring art-history seminar was museum studies, and this topic of inquiry is borne out in the exhibition. One case contains two pieces with labels from an earlier display on campus, probably at the Haskell Oriental Museum, which opened in 1896. A printed wood plaque of a white snake was previously labeled, “Serpent Cult. The serpent is cunning and mischievous.” While old exhibit labels often left interpretation to the viewer, the new note explains that although the white snake is associated with wealth and good luck, some snakes in Japanese folklore are identified with negative “feminine” qualities: envy, jealousy, passion, and deception.

The exhibition closes December 16.

Sarah Yatzeck, AB’01

Photos: Installation views of Objects of Inquiry: The Buckley Collection of Japanese Art.

Photos courtesy the Smart Museum.

November 23, 2007