31 October 2019

Between realism and reality: Portrayal of Japanese international relations in the work of Kawahara Keiga

CLOSED EXPERT MEETING | 31 Aug 2019 | 9:30 - 18:00 | RCMC

A splendid view of Nagasaki Bay, primary location of Japan’s connections to the outside world, on an unprecedented scale. The Japanese folding screen painted by Kawahara Keiga in 1836, was acquired by Museum Volkenkunde in 2018, and depicts the grand scene in minute detail. Japanese and Chinese ships, and a single Dutch ship, lie at anchor in a calm breeze. The enormous painting presents itself as a trustworthy primary source of visual documentation, but is it?

In this closed expert meeting, we discuss the different narratives the screen can help to unfold and the possibilities for future exhibiting in relation to the rest of the East-Asian collection in Museum Volkenkunde. 

There are reasons to suspect that the peaceful image does not correctly reflect the nature of international relations of that era. The first half of the nineteenth century was filled with tensions. Diminishing trade in copper and other precious metals - a pillar under Nagasaki harbor’s existence – was increasingly being reduced. Incursions on Japan’s restrictive foreign policy by Western powers heightened tensions even further. The folding screen was most likely commissioned by a wealthy Dutchman, and thus intended for export. Kawahara Keiga was assigned to the Dutch as official painter, and must have been acutely aware of the practical rules and restrictions in Japan’s foreign policy. To what extent may that policy have influenced his composition? How realistic is his work in comparison to the reality of Nagasaki’s trade and maritime defense situation? 


Daan Kok

Davey Verhoeven

Dr. Elmer Veldkamp

Dr. Isabel Tanaka-van Daalen

Dr. Noell Wilson

Dr. Rosalien van der Poel

Dr. Ryuto Shimada

Drs. Menno Fitski

Jurre Knoest

Richard Pegg