Issue #198  6/30/2013
Discovering Japan: Dobson's Rigorous Sifting of The Prussian Expedition

By Matt Damsker



Edited by Sebastian Dobson and Sven Saaler, with contributions by Nakai Akio, Peter Pantzer, Veit Hammer, Timon Screech, Sebastian Dobson and Sven Saaler. Published by IUDICIUM, OAG Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens. Hardbound; in German, English and Japanese. 390 pages; more than 100 color plates. ISBN No. 978-3-86205-135-9.

We discover the world in countless ways--through individual perception, of course, and through the explorations of extraordinary individuals with relatively limited resources--Magellan, Columbus, Byrd, Lewis and Clark--or, in the modern era, the vast federal resolve that birthed NASA and manned the moon. Looking back at the 19th century, when photography's emergence made it possible to capture and circulate images of the faraway, it would be hard to cite a more rigorous or fruitful discovering of a new world than that of the Prussian East Asian Expedition of 1860-61.

Chronicled fully and with deep context in this handsome volume, the expedition was a political juggernaut that yielded enormous aesthetic treasure, and Antwerp-based photography scholar Sebastian Dobson and his collaborators have immersed themselves in delineating the range of Japanese culture revealed by the expedition's artifacts. As Dobson has written and lectured, the history of the Prussian Expedition, led by Count Friedrich Albrecht Graf zu Eulenburg, hasn't received much attention outside of Germany and Japan, since its ostensible reason was to forge diplomatic and economic relations with a Japan cocooned in a policy of seclusion for more than 200 years, trading only with the Netherlands.

Indeed, the Prussia-Japanese treaty of 1861 momentously marked the opening of Japan to the West, thanks to Eulenburg's staff of diplomats, but for Dobson's purposes it was the Count’s contingent of scientists, artists and photographers whose five-month stay in Edo, Japan, allowed for a discerning cultural investigation, discovering Japan for a Europe that knew so little about it.

Dobson and company's focus on the iconography of the Prussian Expedition, consisting of photographs, lithographs and work in more traditional media, illuminates for the first time an artistic legacy that has languished too long in history's dustbin, much of it believed to be lost, as Dobson has noted. But the aesthetic fruits of the expedition were deeply seeded, and the gorgeous examples revealed in this book trace a grand trajectory, from the colorful, nimble paper portraiture of Prussian men and Dutch couples as seen through the eyes of Japanese artists such as Utagawa Yoshitora in 1861, to stunning native paintings and drawings of Japan's ports, temples, countryside, its gardens and village life, and the lithographs of the expedition's official artists, Albert Berg and Wilhelm Heine.

For all that, the dawning era of photography found one of its seminal subjects in the grace and exoticism of 19th-century Japan, and the work of the expedition's official photographer, Carl Bismarck, his assistant August Sachtler, and American photographer John Wilson (temporarily employed by Eulenburg in Edo) are arguably the greatest treasures of Dobson's trove. Dobson notes that, at the inception of the expedition, Heine had requested that a photographer be hired, but he could not foresee that the immediacy and iconographic power of the new medium would supplant that of his drawing and turn out to be a source of friction between him and Eulenburg.

In any event, Eulenberg and Heine settled on the 20-year-old Bismarck, whose training in photography was limited, but who nonetheless delivered important architectural studies of teahouses, temples and complex Japanese structures. Yet Eulenberg was less than impressed with Bismarck's work and cast blame on Heine's management skills, all of which opened the door for John Wilson's contracting.

Inevitably, perhaps, Heine's and Berg's skillfully drawn yet rather stolid renderings of Japan's sights and people were overshadowed by the sheer life-like power of Wilson's photos and those attributed to Sachtler. Wilson's images of Japanese peasantry, clustered in somber dignity amidst their earthen dwellings, surrounded by modest domestic implements, provide a powerful sense of life-as-lived, while the Sachtler-attributed studio portraiture of nobly attired, sword-wielding Samurai officials (yakunin), and handsomely dressed Japanese women are superbly exposed, richly expressive images of Japanese formality.

Under Dobson's direction, "Under Eagle Eyes" is a compendium of discovery as complex, in its way, as the Eulenberg expedition itself. Dobson has brought to light important visual works that would otherwise continue to fly tragically under the radar, but more importantly, he has marshaled his resources to explain the challenge and conflict of an expensive diplomatic/economic state endeavor that paid off immensely over centuries. At the time, the photographic record may have seemed a lesser legacy, and Dobson notes with irony that a set of photographic equipment was not among the official gifts presented to the Japanese preceding the treaty. But the Western gift of photography would ultimately prove to be among "the most durable in Japanese collective memory," he writes, along with Eulenberg's gift to Japan of telegraph apparatus. Let's agree that Dobson's scholarship will prove an equally durable gift of discovery.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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