2020–2021 Smart Scholars

Archive of 2020–2021 Smart Scholars projects

Marco Kaisth
2020–2021 Smart Scholar
The chapbook the unfinished world by Marco Kaisth was created in response to research into the provenance of two Indian miniature paintings: the first, in the Smart Museum’s collection, the second, passed down through Kaisth’s family. While differentiated by provenance, subject, and material, the works themselves were unified by the lack of information available about them. The work in the Smart’s collection, drawing, had no information associated with it in the museum’s online catalog, and limited details available in the object’s physical file. The work in Kaisth’s family had even less information surrounding it: they only knew it likely depicted an ancestor, and was older than Kaisth’s grandmother.

Through consulting scholars of South Asian art history, Kaisth was able to trace the Smart’s miniature painting to early 1800s, pre-Vaishnavite Rajasthan, and discovered it likely depicts a courtly figure of some renown. While it is likely to have originated in Jaipur, Kaisth was unable to confirm or deny this via archival research. The painting in Kaisth’s family has a similarly murky origin: it matches his family’s origin, as from the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, and fits in neatly with the accompanying style of Pahari miniature paintings. The subject is marked by the artist (who we can tell is illiterate, by their mock-Urdu) as a scribe at work, in service of some unknown customer. Additionally, further inquiry into the object reveals something fairly unique among miniature paintings: a landscape-sketch on the back of the portrait itself.

When Kaisth set out on this project, he knew he would have to gain comfort with a lack of information, with stringing together what loose facts were available about these pieces, out in the world, into a satisfying object. This is the essential nature of diaspora: it makes us tug ourselves together, build ourselves piece-by-piece from the old and the new, from absence and from presence alike. Kaisth could not have predicted the messy year over which this project would come into being but creating this chapbook has helped serve as a kind of anchor, a way of constructing stability and meaning in a time without much. This chapbook served as a locus for revisiting and retooling earlier poetic works with a focus on finding meaning in distance and trajectory, an opportunity to layer the past with light.

Talia Ratnavale
2020–2021 Smart Scholar
Jean Baptiste’s under-appreciated work Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensuality was studied by means of a technical art historical method in which art historical background research is combined with a technical analysis of the work itself.

Regnault’s work can be situated in the context of the French Neoclassical art historical period. A visual of the subsurface layers of Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensuality revealed crucial choices made by the artist during this period which sets him apart from his contemporaries. In order to achieve the visualization of these layers, IR photography of the painting was conducted. Infrared photography makes use of longer wavelengths of light which can “pass” through the surface of a painting and are able to be reflected back into a specially modified camera. The findings of this study (both technical and art historical) revealed that Regnault maintained a dual interest in the themes of restraint and indulgence. A final paper was produced in which these findings were discussed. It serves as  proof of concept that a simple imaging setup can be used to achieve profound insights into the mind of an understudied painter such as Regnault, someone whose concerns might have been previously thought to be lost to history. Finally, in order to facilitate the research endeavors of future students, an IR photography guide was created which details the setup process.

An Trinh
2020-2021 Smart Scholar
In The Teahouse in Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints: A Comparative Case Study of Two Prints from Hiroshige I and Hiroshige II, An Trinh studied Ise Province: Mount Asama, Teahouse on the Mountain Pass by Utagawa Hiroshige and Naka-no-chô in the Yoshiwara by Hiroshige II in the Smart Museum of Art’s collection. The teahouse is shared imagery in both prints; however, these teahouses serve different functions and purposes. The teahouse in Mount Asama is more similar to a chashitsu, which is a traditional house designed for the tea ceremony, but with a more open design for the pilgrims on their way to one of the holiest shrines in Japan—the Ise Grand Shrine. Meanwhile, the teahouses on Naka-no-chô street were representatives of the ochaya, or the place that served both tea and different forms of entertainment.

Despite these different uses, the teahouses were portrayed by two artists with similar purposes: to lure the audience away from their mundane and full-of-worry daily lives and to construct alternatives filled with happiness and liberation. They were both made in the final years of the Edo period, when foreigners’ expeditions and warships’ intruded into Japanese territory, and the country was pressured to modernize and Westernize. Although this period was later shown to have momentous impact on the development of Japan, at that time, for the common people, it was experienced in daily life as a period of economic and political turmoil after a very prolonged period of peace, where prices were inflated, wars emerged, and many traditions were threatened with extinction. Thus, the chashitsu on Mount Asama was a place for spiritual escape and the ochaya in Yoshiwara nurtured audiences’ physical and emotional desires, so that although they could not run away from reality, they could at least spend some moments dreaming about escape.

The teahouses also provided the physical structure for these fantasies. As a Geographical Sciences and Environmental & Urban Studies double-major, Trinh was fascinated with anything related to the meaning and function of structure, and how that played role in the social interactions societally. Trinh produced a short essay for this comparative case study and a creative video using print-making and stop-motion animation to convey this thesis in different media. Trinh wanted to show how art and architecture played a vital role in shaping history and reflecting it, as the precious historical consciousness would have been completely lost without artists portraying mundane, daily life.

Chuwen Xiao
2020–2021 Smart Scholar
This project explored the use of Chinese ink in modern and contemporary Chinese art through two pieces held in the Smart museum’s collection: Mozart (1977) by Lü Wu-Chiu and Green Matter (2002) by Xian Hong. In the research phase of this project, Xiao closely studied the visual structure of the two pieces and focused on the narrative interaction between ink and paper that emerges within each painting. These artworks, like many Chinese ink paintings, conduct a mediated dialogue between the painted subject and the empty space of the paper. These observations are also integrated with Xiao’s research on the larger climate of ink wash practiced by Chinese artists, where a contemplation of cultural identity and conflict of temporality are at the core of modernizing the ink medium for the present. Indeed, the mature and practiced control of Chinese ink can be observed in both Lü and Hong’s modern application of the medium.

The exploration of these two paintings and academic research on Chinese ink wash painting inspired a 34-page illustrated storybook that follows a cow’s journey across inked worlds in search for more grass to eat. Merchandise such as sticker sheets and postcards were also designed and printed as an extension of the light-hearted storybook. Echoes of Lü and Hong’s paintings can be found throughout the landscapes journeyed by the story’s protagonist. With Xiao’s background in illustration and brief training in ink painting, the creative process of this zine challenged her to synthesize the traditional ink medium with digital drawing and image manipulation. The images are painted with ink on xuan paper, then manipulated digitally to accentuate the material interaction between ink and paper in the printed medium. Xiao embraced the mediated consumption of the ink wash painting as she could only experience these paintings through a digitized photograph for a significant portion of the project. Later seeing these two paintings in person and re-experiencing the spatial and visual relationship of the ink paintings’ materiality heavily inspired the visual arrangement of this book. Through this storybook, Xiao aimed to emulate the innovative and meditative compositions of Lü and Hong’s artworks and transform these elements into her own creative narrative adventure.