Ōtagaki Rengetsu's Discursive Ceramics and the Poetics of Haptic Reading," August 26, 2022

NEANE Lecture Series for the initiative to promote non-European art in Latin American run by the Center for the Study of Non-European Art (NEANE-UNICAMP)


"Bloodlines: Fictive Histories, Genji Geneaologies, and Medieval Matrilines," November 17, 2021

Diagrams Across Disciplines: History, Theory, Practice

Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University
This paper explores how stories have been diagrammed, focusing on the Japanese prose-poetry narrative The Tale of Genji (ca 1000). Spanning seventy-five years, four generations, and including some five hundred characters, the complex tale generated myriad supplemental texts to aid readers. One type of diagrammatic paratext, the so-called “Genji genealogy” (Genji keizu), provides brief biographical information about the tale’s fictional characters and charts their interrelationships. In an effort to see beyond the referential nature of these texts, this talk examines how the lineal blueprint of such genealogies can itself generate meaning. The characters listed in the genealogy are linked dramatically by red “bloodlines” and reveal in their order of presentation particular interpretations of the tale. A recently discovered example from 1511 will be the focal point, as its unique patronage history illuminates connections between fictional schemas and historical matrilines in medieval Japan.

"Mystic Peak: Japanese Art from the Bernstein Collection," October 22, 2021

The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

This talk intorduces the exhibition opening at the Hood Museum and delves into the meaning of its title, "Mystic Peak." The name comes from a work of calligraphy, a Zen kōan from the Blue Cliff Record (1125) in which a monk asks “What is the lone summit of mystic peak 妙峰頂?” The Daitokuji monk Seigan Sōi (1588-1661) who brushed the calligraphy answered the question with two brushstrokes that represent the wall-gazing Bodhidharma. The Bodhidharma, a word-picture, a moji-e made up of the character for “mind,” lies somewhere between text and image, neither and both; a perfect counterpart to the kōan.

Highlights from the show include a rare portrait of the founder of the tea ceremony in Japan, Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691),  two ink paintings by Soga Shōhaku (1730-81), an important Genji screen by Kano Takanobu (1571-1618), and a medieval Big Dipper Star Mandala, with combinatory deities.


"Otagaki Rengetsu's Haptic Poetics," March 12, 2021

University of Chicago, Department of Art History, Visual and Material Perspectives on East Asia (VMPEA)

The early modern Japanese nun-artist, Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), left nearly one thousand waka poems, a number multiplied by their repeated inscription on all manner of surfaces, from pottery to poem sheets to hanging scrolls with accompanying paintings. This vast body of poetic work speaks to Rengetsu’s use of the ancient thirty-one syllable form as her primary mode of creative expression and intellectual ordering of the world. The vitality and social immediacy of the nun’s poetry open up onto a vibrant world of waka, and its theorization in the Edo period, countering notions of waka’s stagnation since the medieval period, when it gave way to forms such as renga, and subsequently haikai in the early modern era. Although Rengetsu left no poetic treatises or theoretical texts of her own, her vast oeuvre of verses and inscribed art works in their totality amount to a waka poetics of practice that rewards analysis for its richness and complexity of allusion, subject position, and medium specificity.

This talk offers a meditation on the embodied qualities of Rengetsu’s work, from her use of a subject position in which the presence of the poet seems to dominate, to the haptic presentation of her waka calligraphy incised into her pottery. It then turns to an analysis of one of Rengetsu’s most famous poems, instantiated in word and image, to show the multiplicity of poetic subject positions she employs, as well as, ultimately, an embodied self rhetorically undermined. 


"Tattered Fans and Talismans: The Symbolism of Battle Fans and the Ethos of Impermanence."  May 28, 2020.

In conjunction with the exhibition The Art of Impermanence: Japanese Works from the John C. Weber Collection and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. 

This talk explores the evolving imagery of the folding fan, focusing on its use and symbolic meaning in the hands of medieval warriors and Edo period samurai. From talismanic fans believed to be imbued with supernatural efficacy, to icons of ephemerality, the discussion will culminate with an analysis of the striking campaign coat (jinbaori) with tattered fan design in the Weber Collection.


"The Artifact of Literature: Rengetsu’s Waka Poetics in Word, Image, and Object."  March 27, 2020 [CANCELLED].

For the Symposium: Japan in the Age of Modernization: The Art of Tomioka Tessai and Otagaki Rengetsu, in conjunction with the exhibition Meeting Tessai: Modern Japanese Art from the Cowles Collection.

Ōtagaki Rengetsu’s hundreds of extant poems, inscribed on surfaces ranging from paper to pottery, make it clear that she used waka poetry to order to the world around her and as her primary mode of creative expression. The vitality and social immediacy of Rengetsu’s poetry clearly contradict the fallacy of waka’s irrelevance in the early modern era, a period usually perceived as the age of haikai. Rengetsu lived at a time when the contemporary significance of classical literary forms was rigorously debated, and her waka are far from stylistically antiquated. Rengetsu reinvigorated the waka, not only through poetic diction and content, but through a calligraphic style that is both of the past and uniquely contemporary, a visual waka aesthetics that when paired with painting recalibrates the subjective voice of the poet, and the creation of waka as haptic form with her inscribed pottery. This talk will use the Cowles Collection of Rengetsu’s pictured poems, poetry sheets, and ceramics to explore the changing nature of her verse and subjective voice when instantiated across different media.