The Square Halo

Women’s History Month is barreling toward us and I am happily working on bringing you another March full of mini-interviews with people who are doing interesting work in women’s history. In the meantime, I’m sharing some of the books that I’ve rediscovered in the process of finding room on my office shelves for the books I used in writing The Dragon From Chicago.

I must admit, I’m enjoying looking at books that I haven’t touched or thought about for years—in some cases decades—and sharing them with you, even though it is definitely slowing down progress on reclaiming my project bookshelf.* (Not to mention the related process of filing stuff in my project boxes.) At least some of you seem to be enjoying it as well—or at least I am causing you to add books to your own TBR lists. (As far as I’m concerned, this is a WIN.) Don’t be surprised if you see more posts like this once Women’s History Month is over.**

In the meantime, let’s take a look at The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art by Sally Fisher.

The subtitle of The Square Halo sums up what the book is about: Images and the Stories That Inspired Them. It is a crisply written, beautifully illustrated introduction to the stories behind works of Western art that were created in periods before art for arts sake was a thing, specifically the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.*** Fisher, who worked for many years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looks at paintings that were shaped by meaning as well as aesthetics—paintings that we often hurry past in museums on our way to art works that seem more accessible—and untangles the symbols, ideas and attitudes that are impenetrable to the modern viewer. Her goal is to not only answer the question “what’s going on?” in these paintings, but to help a modern reader understand the ideas behind what’s happening on the canvas.

The book is organized according to themes rather than chronology. Most of the themes are Biblical or drawn from the stories of Christian saints, though Fisher includes a chapter on stories from classical Greece and Rome. (It seems perfunctory to my eye, though I doubt if it did when I bought the book soon after its publication in 1995.)

Testing to see how the book holds up, these many years later, I turned to the story of Judith and Holofernes, which I am familiar with as a subject in Romantic painting and which Bridget Quinn discussed in Broad Strokes in her chapter on Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). Fisher's account of the story is clear and complete. Her description of the painting she uses to illustrate it directed my eye to elements I might have missed on my own. (I’m used to more dramatic paintings of the subject.) She places it in the broader context of medieval and Renaissance paintings on the subject.   But I must admit, it didn't grab me.

I then turned to her discussion of halo shapes, which was absolutely fascinating. Perhaps because I didn’t remember any of it from reading it the first time.

The Square Halo will keep its place on my shelves as a useful reference work to use alongside other books about art, but I am not tempted to read it again from start to finish.

*This would only matter if I had another project in the wings waiting to fill that shelf, but I don’t. Or rather, I have a growing list of possible projects waiting for me to have enough time and clarity of thought to explore them.

**Though you also have a horde of women journalists coming your way.

***I would argue that “art for arts sake” did not become an important idea until the nineteenth century. But paintings created between the Renaissance and the Romantic movement often build on very different stories than the Christian-centric art of earlier periods. Classical mythology and history, for instance, played an important role in the history painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But I digress.

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor

Women’s History Month is barreling toward us and I am happily working on bringing you another March full of mini-interviews with people who are doing interesting work in women’s history. In the meantime, I’m sharing some of the books that I’ve rediscovered in the process of finding room on my office shelves for the books I used in writing The Dragon From Chicago. (The danger with this is the temptation to re-read the books as I go. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for all the as yet unread books piled throughout my office.)

Next up, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century's End by East Asia scholar Norma Field

Long, long ago, when I was a graduate student, I team-taught three sections of a four-section continuing education course called “Asia and the Middle East” for the University of Chicago. I covered South Asia, the Middle East, and occasionally South East Asia. My co-teacher, Robert LaFleur, a brilliant and creative scholar who combines anthropology and history in his study of Chinese history and culture, covered China, Japan, and occasionally Korea. Over the course of the five years that we taught the course, I read everything he assigned—a fascinating dive into cultures and history that I knew little about that was the rough equivalent of an undergraduate major in East Asian studies.  (Minus term papers, exams, and language requirements.)

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, published in 1991, was one of those books. It was, by intention, a solid kick in the cultural assumptions. Emperor Hirohito had died in 1989. Norma Field, the daughter of an American soldier and a Japanese woman, was in Japan in the year leading up to his death. She witnessed the nation’s vigil over the dying emperor and its uncritical, formalized exaltation of his life after his death. In In The Realm of a Dying Emperor, Field sets that exaltation and the "national amnesia" which made it possible against the stories of three Japanese who dissented against the cultural hegemony that dictated the response to the emperor’s death in the prior two years. An Okinawan supermarket owner burned the Japanese flag in protest against Japan’s treatment of Okinawans. A widow sued the state to prevent the Shinto deification of her husband, a member of the Self-Defense Force who died while officially on duty, though not on the battlefield, claiming that it was an infringement of her religious rights as practicing Christian. The mayor of Nagasaki, also a Japanese Christian, raised a furor, and exposed himself to death threats, by stating that the emperor bore some responsibility for Japan’s role in World War II and consequently for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Field does not simply tell their stories, she examines the public response to their actions and the roots of their actions in their minority status. She interweaves their stories with her own experience as “one of them war babies” growing up in Japan in the 1950s.

My memory of the book is that it was a compelling account of a society with fractures it did not acknowledge. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

From the Archives–Samurai: The Last Warrior

I'm currently embroiled in proofreading the endnotes for The Dragon From Chicago.  It's a headache-inducing job, but it is the one part of the book in which no one can catch the errors except the writer.  (Probably the person who made one of them. )  Instead of hoping I pick up speed and can squeeze out a new post, here's post that ran in 2013 for your amusement.

John Man combines travelogue, history and social commentary in Samurai: The Last Warrior, using the story of Saigo Takamori, popularly known as the "last samurai", as his central focus.

In 1877, Saigo led a hopeless rebellion against the Japanese government. Six hundred samurai armed with traditional sword and bow fought the government's newly trained modern army in an effort to reverse the westernizing changes of the Meiji Restoration. When all was lost, Saigo committed ritual suicide; the institution of the samurai died with him. Three years after Saigo's death, the government against which he rebelled erected a monument honoring him as a great patriot.

Man uses Saigo's story as a lens through which to consider the history of the samurai, Japan's rapid transformation from a feudal society to a modern one, and the ways in which samurai culture colors Japanese society today. He offers detailed explanations of both familiar elements of samurai culture, such as ritual suicide, and less familiar subjects, such as formalized sexual relationships between men. Man himself is never far from the page, whether comparing traditional samurai education with that of a British public schoolboy, visiting a class where a toned-down version of samurai-style sword fighting is taught, discussing the samurai in the context of other "honor cultures" (think street gangs), or explaining Darth Vader's samurai roots.

Samurai is an engaging look at the final days of a military elite: a great choice if you're interested in the  the story of the last samurai or the lasting influence of these warriors on Japanese culture.