Fencing, c. 1890
Photographic materials and colors on paper
8 1/4 x 10 1/4 in. (21 x 26 cm)
Kusakabe Kimbei (1841-1934) learned photography from two Europeans working in Yokohama: Felice Beato (1832-1909) and Raimund von Stillfried (1839-1911). Beato had made a reputation in 1855 documenting the Crimean War and in 1858 the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In the 1860s he recorded cities in India and China, before reaching Yokohama in 1863, where he opened a studio to provide souvenirs for foreigners visiting Japan. He began training Japanese to assist him in photography and in the hand coloring of prints. Kimbei is thought to have been working for Beato in the 1870s, when Beato sold his studio and stock to von Stillfried. By 1886, Kimbei had purchased the equipment and negatives of Beato and von Stillfried, both of whom returned to Europe.
Fencing portrays two figures dressed in protective armor wielding shinai, or bamboo swords. They are practicing kendo: the “way of the sword.” The men in Kimbei’s image are too small to see their faces, but the contrast with Edward Weston’s two photographs of Japanese fighting men is stark. Weston’s use of dark shadows, reflected light on the leather and lacquered helmets, and close-up details evokes emotional responses from the viewer. Kimbei’s photograph is more distant and documentary, showing “a bit of old Japan.” Kimbei’s portrait also has shadows, but they hardly matter in the overall composition. Kimbei’s figures are placed before a bamboo fence, which can also be seen in another photograph in the Scripps album, where beyond the fence is a Western-style building, suggesting that both scenes were staged outside the Beato/von Stillfried/Kimbei studio in Yokohama. Who shot the image cannot be determined.
Kimbei operated several studios in Tokyo and Yokohama, creating albums of photographs selected by his customers. This album, probably dating from the 1890s, contains 50 hand-colored prints of landscapes (20 prints), city views (8) and genre scenes (22). On facing pages, Fencing (pl. IV.2) depicts two men practicing martial arts in an outdoor setting and Chrysanthemums shows a statue of a samurai warrior made with blooming plants. The juxtaposition provides a humorous parallel. The samurai class that had dominated Japanese politics and society for centuries had been replaced in the 1870s by civilian government bureaucrats who were modernizing Japan to compete with European and American models. That hereditary profession of warriors was now obsolete and could be publicly mocked. But learning martial arts was still valued in Japan, especially in the 1890s, when nostalgia for the past resulted in a renewed interest in traditional skills and arts. Whether Kimbei’s studio made the juxtaposition when assembling the album or the foreign customer deliberately chose the sequence of images cannot be determined, but the irony is evident.
Bruce A. Coats
Professor of Art History and Humanities
This work is one of 50 hand-colored albumen prints of protraits and scenes of Japanese life.
Content : Gilt-edge leaves are tabbed into album with lacquer boards and leather spine, with the title, "Japan," in gold. Front cover has hand-painted and inlaid scene of a man pulling a rickshaw in which a woman with an umbrella is seated. Both wear traditional garb. Inlays are of ivory. Back cover is painted with the images of a dragonfly, cricket, praying mantis, butterfly and another winged insect, possibly a bee. End papers and doublure are of imitation moire.
Content : Views are numbered with Arabic numerals in negative.
In the lower right hand corner, the number 126 appears with the title.
hand-colored albumen print
"Fencing" portrays two figures dressed in protective armor wielding shinai, or bamboo swords. They are practicing kendo: the “way of the sword.” The men in Kimbei’s image are too small to see their faces. Kimbei’s photograph is documentary, showing “a bit of old Japan.” Kimbei’s figures are placed before a bamboo fence, which can also be seen in another photograph in the Scripps album, where beyond the fence is a Western-style building, suggesting that both scenes were staged outside the Beato/von Stillfried/Kimbei studio in Yokohama. Who shot the image cannot be determined.
Professor Bruce Coats Professor of Art History and Humanities
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