Professor's Voice

Michio Hayashi

The pleasure of looking. Unlike a traditional survey course that traces the genealogy of established ‘masterpieces,' mine is an opportunity for students to experience new possibilities of looking. Students are exposed to interpretive alternatives for observing and analyzing a work of art. So the ‘pleasure’ is more than a passive visual one but rather derives from active interrogation into the tangled relationship between visual experience and the historic socio-cultural forces that condition it. I want my students to become attentive to the act of looking from a critical standpoint.

To achieve this students have to master the technique of close reading/looking. The comparative method (two or more images simultaneously projected on the screen) is still the best way to draw students' attention to the formal details of visual image. Take, for example, the comparison of Van Gogh's copy of Hiroshige's woodcut print (a well-known Ukiyo-e artist) and Hiroshige's original. When I ask my students to analyze the comparison, students begin to notice subtle but crucial differences between the original and Van Gogh's copy. They notice that even in the works of such an unconventional painter as Van Gogh the tradition of oil painting and its way of seeing persists. Through such careful comparison, everyone in the classroom quickly becomes an art critic.

But why did Van Gogh copy Hiroshige's print? For answers, we look into the historical context of this Dutch master's encounter with Japanese culture. Close reading of the image has to be put in contact with the situation in which it was originally produced. So I present such additional materials to students as the painter's words and other painters' works testifying to a similar enthusiasm for Japanese culture. Students are introduced to a larger cultural trend called Japonisme. But seen in relation to the context of Japonisme, Van Gogh's painting, together with other similar examples, raises further questions. Why such unrestrained enthusiasm about Japan although most Japonists never visited Japan? Is Van Gogh's image of Japan accurate? What motivated his interest? Why did he try to imitate Japanese prints by using oil paint? And so on. As we discuss these issues students realize that a visual image is a hot field on which multiple desires, needs, and expectations cross.


Student's Voices

It is really interesting to see how artists interpreted and expressed reality through the medium of paint. Professor Hayashi really got my attention because he explains in detail about the paintings – from the time period, to history, to the details of the brush strokes, to the use of colors – which gives so much more depth to the paintings.
Junior studying literature and art who wants to be a freelance artist

This course taught me that the total image of a painting is created not only by the application of color but also by such elements as subject matter, style, composition, structure, and cultural context. Now when I go to museums I think that I am better able to appreciate the aesthetic values of images.
Sophomore majoring in Comparative Culture

The primary thing that I learned is the importance of taking a piece of art off the wall and thinking about it and its author, in regard to the socio/economic/political conditions of the time it was made.
Exchange student from the United States majoring in Economics