Dr. Alicia Volk Dives In To A Unique Resource Here At The University of Maryland


One would never assume that Professor Alicia Volk is lacking in project ideas. Indeed, to glance into her office at all of the books on her shelves (“just the ones I use for teaching premodern”) is to understand how devoted she is to exploring and explaining the richness of Japanese art.

Dr. Volk came to the University of Maryland in 2006 with a long-term project already in mind that would take advantage of a remarkable archive unique to the University of Maryland – The Gordon W. Prange Collection. As the most comprehensive archive in the world of Japanese printed media from the early years of the Occupation of Japan, 1945-1949, this collection is a quarry from which Dr. Volk mines archival material for her Democratizing Japanese Art book project. How did artists in Japan, from the left (communists) to the right (imperialists), respond to the imposition by the United States-led Occupation government of democratic governance and ideals foreign to Japan? That is the big question Dr. Volk asks in her project, and, as you might imagine, her research is yielding a complex, and at times surprising, picture of postwar art production. For instance, conservative artists, at first fearful of being tried as war criminals for propagandistic activities during the war, in fact found themselves beneficiaries of a profound misunderstanding by occupation authorities: powerful nationalist symbols like Mount Fuji escaped the censor because they were seen by American eyes as essentially artistic and traditional and therefore harmless. Ironically, such blindness to Japanese code-making led American authorities to leave in place virtually all of the wartime artistic hierarchy.

For her first few years at Maryland, Dr. Volk worked in the archives, in her own words, “like an addict,” and admits that a good thirty to forty years of research remains in the Prange Collection, though she intends to finish her book much sooner. In the meantime Dr. Volk has engaged in a couple of projects somewhat smaller in scale, both of which will be published in 2015. One is a chapter in a book to be published by Harvard, The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art, in which Dr. Volk not only traces the changing image of the black figure in Japanese visual culture in relation to changing social and political conditions between 1800 and the present day, but invites the reader to think critically about race as a concept in a field – Japanese art history – that itself has been constituted on racial identity.

Dr. Volk’s other “small” project is an essay in the catalog for an upcoming exhibition at the Herbert Johnson Museum at Cornell University. Titled “From Soft Power to Hard Sell: Images of Japan at American Expositions, 1915-1965,” this essay explores Japanese self-representations at world’s fairs at three key points in the twentieth century – San Francisco in 1915, New York and San Francisco in 1939-1940, and New York in 1964-1965. One interesting finding from this project is that by 1964 art had become marginalized by the Japanese in the story they told of themselves at American fairs. No longer the main vehicle for Japanese self-representation– that distinction fell to the electronics for which Japan would become famous in ensuing decades – art was present only in the form of a 600 ton castle-like wall by the hot-shot New York-based artist Masuyuki Nagare that served as the face of the Japanese pavilion. At the time hailed by the critic John Canaday as the single most important work of art at the fair, sadly the wall survives today only as a handful of stones on the grounds of a small New York college.

Dr. Volk is excited to be back on campus after becoming a mother to a baby girl in 2013, and expects that this new life experience will enrich her teaching and research interests and perhaps lead them in new directions.