Loeb exhibition traces history of Asian art collection

by Sam Pianello
by Sam Pianello
by Sam Pianello

If one walks into the Loeb Art Center this week, one can find a refreshing series of ink paintings on soft, yellowed papers, delicate jade and ceramic works, as well as various drawings from Asia. These works are part of a newly launched exhibition at the Loeb: Asian Art at Vassar. Presenting a large number of works from the college’s Asian collection since 1917, the exhibition seeks to represent the broad range of Asian artworks Vassar has in its collection.

Some highlights on display are a page of sketches created in India around 1825 depicting a Rajput king, a sixteenth-century Chinese scroll entitled “The Palace of the Nine Accomplishments” and a Tibetan painting on fabric, “One Thousand Buddhas.” Also on view in the Landing Gallery from mid-October to mid-December are contemporary Japanese photographs from the permanent collection, including works by Kunié Sugiura, Michiko Kon and Naoya Hatakeyama. The exhibition will be on view for the rest of the semester.

The exhibition is meant as a supplementary feature of the New York Conference on Asian Studies (NYCAS), which will be held on campus in October. The NYCAS is an annual regional conference of the Association for Asian Studies, the largest group of its kind in the world.

Universities and colleges in New York State host the NYCAS on a rotating basis. This year, Vassar has been invited to serve as its host. Professor of Chinese and Japanese, Peipei Qiu is one of the conference co-chairs. She oversees all aspects of the event preparation, including setting up the website, managing the budget, administering the proposal submissions, registrations and so on.

According to Qiu, hosting such a large conference was quite a challenge for a small college like Vassar. “A conference of such scale requires huge resource and support, particularly the meeting spaces and financial budget. As Vassar is a small college and we had never held a conference this big before, we had to consult with many departments and people.”

Qiu continued, “but thanks to the strong support of Dean Chenette and President Hill, as well as the thoughtful suggestions from all parties consulted, Asian Studies Program decided to commit to hosting the 2015 NYCAS.”

The idea of an art exhibition as a supplement to the conference has been on the agenda since a very early stage. Associate Professor of Chinese and Japanese, Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase is also a co-chair of the conference. She explained how they decided to work with the Loeb and launch an art exhibition

“We included this in our plan at our first co-chairs meeting … Asian art exhibition has often been included in the NYCAS conference programs when the hosting institution has a good Asian art collection. Since Vassar’s Loeb is known for its rich Asian art collections, we thought it would be a wonderful feature to have the conference participants visit our museum and see our collections,” she recounted.

The conference organizers and museum staff worked together to select the objects on display for the exhibition. The Coordinator of Academic Programs at the Loeb, Elizabeth Nogrady said that they selected objects representative of Vassar’s Asian work collection.

“We chose objects that are highlights of our Asian collection, recent acquisitions that we wanted to introduce to our visitors, and Japanese and Indian works on paper that are not usually on view due to their more fragile condition. We hope that by having a significant number of Asian works on view in October, conference attendees will have the opportunity to explore the Art Center and see the depth of our collection in this area,” Nogrady stated.

Another theme that connects some of the artworks is food. Qiu said, “To connect this exhibition with our outreach programs, we decided to select art pieces that portray food or food production in Asia.”

Among the wide range of objects on display is an Edo-period painting by the artist Soga Shohaku, depicting men taming horses in the field. Located at the central wall of the Focus Gallery at the Loeb, its energetic brush strokes and engaging composition immediately grasp one’s attention. James Mundy, the Director of the Art Center, told a long story about the painting’s journey from Kyoto to Vassar

Eleven years ago, in 2004, Mundy saw the painting at a Kyoto gallery and was attracted right away. However, the museum didn’t have a budget for it. In the years following, Mundy went to see the painting every time he was in Kyoto. In 2014, ten years later, with a new fund for art acquisition and a depreciation of the Yen by 20%, the Loeb was finally able to have this painting in its own collection.

Mundy said, “For me, this painting was the great white whale in Moby Dick, and it is the pinnacle of our Japanese collection.”

Just like this Shohaku work, Vassar’s Asian art collections all have a long history behind them. The first Asian gifts are a large number of Chinese jade objects which came in 1917 from the then Chairman of the Board of Trustees. The Chairman then donated a series of Asian ceramics in 1936.

When Asian-related subjects became part of the curriculum in the 1970s, the faculty support made possible many gifts and purchases of Asian art such as a Chinese ceramic Han tower, bronze vessels and Indian artworks. More recently, the museum has included more contemporary Asian artists in its collecting efforts, and just acquired a group of contemporary Japanese photographs.

Vividly, this exhibition presents this century-long history with exquisite objects, charming paintings, interesting drawings and so on. With art, it brings to life the connection between Vassar and Asia.

Mundy also expects the exhibition to engage faculty members, students and all people interested and related to Asian Studies. “I hope to bring together everyone who’s involved with Asia and its studies,” he said. As Qiu concludes, “the art exhibition will help bring the dynamic cultures of Asia visually to life, contributing powerfully to both the conference discussions and the education of Asia to general public.”

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