Emiko Yamanashi

Yukio Yashiro and the Institute of Art Research:
Realizing the Goal of Introducing Berenson’s Methodology to Japan


Japanese art history as a modern scholarly discipline is considered to have started with the compilation of the Histoire d l’art du Japon, published in French on the occasion of the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, and the Japanese version, which came out the following year. This was edited by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, led by Okakura Tenshin, who compiled the lists of the treasures of temples and shrines. Okakura traveled to the sites where these works of art were held in order to conduct research on them, divided them according to their historical period, and explained the style with the political and historical background.

In the following generation, Yashiro Yukio (1890-1975) played an important role in introducing a more detailed and objective method and analysis into Japanese art history. Yashiro practiced a method of stylistic comparison based on detailed photographs of works, which he learned under Bernard Berenson. He introduced this method to Japan and contributed a great deal to founding an institute to develop the method.

Yashiro Yukio (Early Years)

Yashiro was born in Yokohama in 1890, and after his graduation from the Daiichi High School, he studied English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. His graduation thesis, entitled “Emotionalism in the Fine Arts,” engaged with Oscar Wilde’s writings on art. Yashiro's thesis reveals that at this time he was already interested in the Fine Arts, and especially in paintings. He started practicing watercolor painting at Nihon Suisaiga Kenkyujo (Japanese Institute of Watercolor Painting) while he was a high school student, and his Red Umbrella in the Field was exhibited at the 7th Bunten (Fine Art exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education) in 1913 while he was a university student. After his graduation from Tokyo Imperial University, he became a lecturer there, and then in 1917 a professor of the Tokyo Fine Arts School, where he taught the history of European art. In March 1921, Yashiro went to London to study European art history where he met figures such as Laurence Binyon and Arthur Waley. In autumn of 1921, he moved to Florence and started to study under Berenson.

Bernard Berenson and Yashiro

Coming to Europe to study Renaissance art, Yashiro started to conduct research on Leonardo da Vinci’s works and continued his study of Renaissance art in London. In his My Life in the Fine Arts [Watakushi no bijutsu henreki (Tokyo 1972)], Yashiro explained that he Yashiro left London after only six months and moved to Florence. In part, he was depressed with the weather. One of the reasons why he moved to Italy was that Bernard Berenson, one of the most influential scholars of Renaissance art, lived there. Meeting Berenson and studying at Villa I Tatti greatly changed Yashiro’s life.

In his autobiography, and in Unforgettable People [Wasure-enu hitobito (Tokyo, 1984)], Yashiro wrote that in the 1920s, Berenson was one of the most active and influential art historians. Identifying artists by stylistic analysis, Berenson searched for the individual separated pieces of altars in order to recreate the original image. Under Berenson's direction, many scholars came together who would end up at the frontline of Renaissance art studies, such as Kenneth Clark. Together with other young art historians, Yashiro studied Berenson and learned his method while training his eyes for stylistic analysis. Soon he reached a level that surprised the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum by identifying the artist of a painting that was being carried down an aisle. The work had been considered a Domenico Ghirlandaio, since it has the inscription “Domenico,” but Yashiro recognized it as a painting by Domenico Veneziano. The director was surprised that a young unknown student from Asia could analyze it so accurately1.

During that period, Yashiro focused his attention on Botticelli. While many people considered Botticelli’s work to have a masculine style, following the analysis made by Herbert Horne, Yashiro appreciated Botticelli’s sensitive expressions as feminine, and wanted to develop this line of interpretation. Berenson, too, appreciated Botticelli’s unique poetic expression. He described it as “oriental,” and supported Yashiro’s approach. Berenson also sensed an “oriental” taste in the works of the Sienese School. Yashiro wrote that perhaps for Berenson, these earlier writings about an Oriental style “now seemed to have a certain air of prognostication about them,” since a student from Asia shared the same taste in Botticelli’s works with Berenson2. Yashiro thought fondly of the days spent studying with Berenson at I Tatti and wrote so in the letters to his teacher. He wrote as follows in his letter to Berenson dated September 6, 1933:

Thank you so much for your letter, which gave me such a vivid recollection of my happy days at I Tatti many years ago. I saw in my mind’s eye that spacious library, where I used to work, that sunny dining room, where you kindly put me in touch with various interesting people, and where I had to divide my poor effort into the two most important problems, how to enjoy the good food served there & yet how to talk or rather mumble in my bad English! And the daffodils, which used to burst into golden splendour in the garden each Spring, the hills of Settignano covered with olives, the distant view of Florence, etc. etc. I am made homesick for you & for your villa.

Coming back to Japan in February 1925 after publishing Sandro Botticelli with the Medici Society, Yashiro took part in the foundation of the first research institute of fine arts in Asia, the “Institute of Art Research.”

Founding the Institute of Art Research

The Institute of Art Research, today known as the Independent Administrative Institute, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, originated thanks to the last will of a painter, Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) and in the idea of an art historian, Yashiro Yukio.3 Kuroda Seiki went to Paris to study law in 1884 but came to be interested in painting. He studied painting under Raphael Collin (1850- 1916), who was a member of the academy. Kuroda’s Woman Reading was accepted at Salon des Artiste François in 1891. After exhibiting Morning Toilet at Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1893, Kuroda returned to Japan and introduced the Impressionist depiction of light to the Japanese art world. In 1896, Kuroda became an instructor in the department of Western painting of the Tokyo School of Fine Art, which was established that year. He also organized an association of Western-style art, Hakubakai, and became an influential figure in the Japanese world of fine art. Becoming a member of the Jury of the Bunten --which started in 1907 as the first government-sponsored exhibition of fine art-- Kuroda played an important role in establishing Western-style oil painting as a discipline in Japan.

Before he died in 1924, Kuroda left provisions in his last will to spend a part of his estate on a project to promote the study of the fine arts. Since he did not leave any specific indications about this project, Makino Nobuaki was asked by Kabayama Aisuke, the executor of Kuroda’s last will, to choose an appropriate project. This led to a series of discussions between people who had been very close to Kuroda: Masaki Naohiko, Principal of the Tokyo School of Art, Fukuhara Ryojiro, Head of the Imperial Academy of Art, and Kume Keiichiro, an oil painter and art critic. This was the situation that Yashiro found when he returned from Europe after publishing his highly respected monograph Sandro Botticelli. During his stay in Europe, Yashiro had kept his position at the Tokyo School of Art where he had the experience of participating in Kuroda’s painting class. After Masaki asked Yashiro for his ideas about a project to encourage fine arts, Yashiro explained the significance of an art library focused on collecting photographs. Having agreed with this idea, Masaki explained it to Fukuhara and Makino. Both of them agreed, and the Institute of Art Research was founded. In his autobiography, Yashiro recounted this momentous decision:

During my stay in London, I saw that there was such a thing as an institute that ought to be called an “art library focused on photographs,” where photographs of all kinds of art works were collected, divided and preserved. I myself visited there and learned so much and knew how greatly this kind of library contributed to society. Thinking that it might be befitting to Kuroda’s legacy to found such an art library, I proposed to create such an institute in Japan.4

The Art Library in London that Yashiro mentioned was the one which Sir Robert Witt created by himself, and with the help of his family. As recounted by Yashiro:

I became close with Sir Robert Witt and his family in London. Here I got to know how wonderfully the collection of photographs of works of art contributes to the world of the fine arts, if the quantity reaches a certain amount and if the collection is well organized, even though it was started as nothing very much. Using this photograph collection myself, I felt its significance very keenly. Thus, I decided, when I returned to Japan and began my scholarly work there again, to do a similar kind of work in the style befitting the art of Asia and Japan. I was thinking I should do this work alone if I could not have anybody to work together.5

Yashiro started to collect and organize the photographs in his section of the Tokyo School of Art with his assistant, Shirahata Yoshi. The principal of the school, Masaki, helped it by recognizing its significance. This work was succeeded by the staff of the institute, which was founded according to Kuroda’s last will.6 Masaki became the first head of the institute when it was founded in 1930; Yashiro succeeded him in this role in November 1931. In June 1936, Yashiro became director of the institute.

Yashiro’s Idea for the Institute of Art Research

Yashiro’s idea of the Institute of Art Research was based on his recognition that he was one of the successors of the methodology of the “stylistic criticism,” that his teacher, Berenson, had established after receiving inspiration from Giovanni Morelli. Yashiro addresses this in two letters to Berenson:

Although a bad pupil & lazy correspondent, yet I am a little proud to tell you -- and I am sure you would be glad to know -- that I could do something fundamental for the future study of the Oriental Art. After studying under your guidance & imbibing your accurate way of research-works in Art, so far as I could, I found the present state of art study in the Far East very unsatisfactory & could so far succeed as to persuade the interested people in Japan to establish an institute where practically your method of study is to be pursued in the field of Oriental Art. You may have heard of this “Institute of Art Research” from Sir Robert Witt. It is to be opened from next year & I am going to be its director. You will find from the reports, which we are going to issue from next year, that you & your works are the fundamental & constant inspiration for us all. Therefore, although I am only a bad pupil of yours, being nothing but a simple artist by nature, yet I am educating my assistants in strict conformity to your precepts (letter of October 4, 1927). 

What I want really to show to you is the work itself, and it is one of my most cherished dreams to be told by Mr. Berenson that he did not educate Yuki uselessly, seeing that a new method of study in the field of Oriental art is actually being opened according to the idea of Mr. Berenson, transmitted to the Far East by Yuki!! I hope that Mr. Berenson would consider it one of his duties to pay a visit to Tokio to examine what sort of work his pupil is beginning (letter of August 1, 1928).

Yashiro was highly recognized in the European art history world for his stylistic analysis of Botticelli's works. With the aid of photographs, he closely studied the style of an artist by closely comparing images of his paintngs. Yashiro aimed to apply this method to study the art of Japan and Asia, and thus to establish a new method for studying Asian art.7 Yashiro’s experience of using the Robert Witt Library in London and studying in Berenson’s library--both containing significant collections of books and photographs--seems to have led him to the idea of the Institute of Art Research. Berenson’s interest in Asian art must have encouraged Yashiro in this project. In some letters to Berenson, Yashiro lamented that his articles on Asian art were written only in Japanese, which Berenson was unable to read. As Yashiro wrote to his teacher:

It is already since 1928 that I have not seen you. I have become much older. These years I have been devoted to the study of Chinese painting and I have published various articles on the subject. But working chiefly in Japan, all my publications are in my own language and I regret that I cannot ask you to examine what sort of work I am doing in the field of Far Eastern Art, after my years of apprenticeship, so to speak, in the field of Italian painting under your guidance & inspiration (letter of January 20, 1936).

The Institute of Art Research, being part of the Imperial Academy of Art, was an official public institute. In contrast, the libraries of Robert Witt and Bernard Berenson, which provided modes for the Institute of Art Research,  were both private, though public photo archives already existed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) and the Accademia di Brera (Milan). In Asia, the Institute of Art Research is the first example of a public art history research center with a major photo archive.

Needless to say, Yashiro’s design would not be fully realized until the institute had obtained a considerable number of books and photographs. In a new journal, he expressed his views about the newly founded institute.

The Institute of Art Research today is not an art library. The building of the Institute does not have sufficient facilities, and the budget is far less than what people would expect to run an art library. The Institute, in the situation today, is expected to work as a research institute which conducts research and contributes to society by publicizing its results as books or periodicals. Considering the general situation of art research, the maintenance level of art administration and education, and international relations in the world of fine arts in Japan, it would be considered more urgent work of this institute to focus on conducting basic research on the works of art and sharing the results with society.8

Yashiro also wrote the “Main Principles of the Research of the Institute Today”:

1)      Editing complete inventories of Asian art. In addition, collecting biographies of the artists in Asia, signatures and seals, and editing the basic materials related to fine art. The inventory of Asian art is a vast project to make a census of Asian art, combined with photographs. This project started with the help of the Keimeikai Foundation, which the Institute of Art Research will succeed to accomplish as a national project.

2)      Making a bibliography of art-related materials.

3)      Editing the Yearbook of Japanese Art, including newspaper clippings. Through this work, materials on art relating to society would be collected chronologically.

 4)      Keeping mutual relations between the art-related institute and organization overseas, and collecting information, although studying Western art in Japan is not easy. The information should be open to the public to contribute to the international relations in the field of art, introducing Japanese art to the other nations and to the people who study art and art history overseas.

 5)      Research on art administration and education. Collecting materials on fine art museums, the organization of the art academy, the National policy for the protection of the works of art, and the curriculum of the schools of art and art craft, making use of this material to innovate Japanese organizations and education.

 6)      Research on techniques and materials related to fine art. Although its necessity is recognized, it is hard to accomplish at this moment. To encourage the development of a new art which suits the new age, Japanese traditional materials and techniques should be examined and protected if necessary. The materials and techniques of other countries have to be examined and discussed if they suit Japan and the taste of Japanese people.

There were three research departments in the Institute before 1945.9 The First Department conducted research on ancient and pre-modern Asian art, and the Second Department conducted research on modern Japanese art. The Third Department was responsible for research on art in Europe and the United States; research on Asian art in Europe and the United States; and international relations as related to the fine arts.

While Yashiro was very proud of being one of the Berenson's students, at the forefront of Renaissance Art studies, he recognized the difficulty of studying European Art in Japan; at that time, there were very few works and materials related to European art available in Japan. Yashiro purchased photographs of European art works when he went abroad and added them to the collection of the Institute of Art Research. Those were catalogued by artists’ names or schools and made available to the public.10

Under Yashiro’s strong leadership, the Institute of Art Research produced fruitful results. As he wrote to Berenson:

I am all in all immersed in my Eastern studies, especially in my Chinese studies. With what I have got, while I was with you, under your influence, I am now trying my best to establish a new history of Eastern Arts. I am writing a series of scholarly articles, which I publish now & then in the “Journal of Art Studies”, which I am sending you. When these articles are collected so that they form a book, I shall have them translate into English (letter of January 7, 1935).

Yashiro after Retirement from the Institute of Art Research

On June 28, 1942, Yashiro resigned from the Institute to he had devoted himself to so much of his life. As he explained in his autobiography, he took responsibility for misreading an imperial proclamation.11After this, Yashiro moved to Oiso, located in Kanagawa prefecture, and spent his time writing The Characteristics of Japanese Art (Nihonbijutsu no Tokushitsu, Tokyo 1943), among other works. In 1950, when the Cultural Properties Protection Law was established, Yashiro became a member of the committee of the Cultural Properties Protection. In April 1952, with the reconstruction of the Institute of Art Research, Yashiro became the director again and worked until October 1953. At the request of Oita Torao, president of the Kintetsu Railroad company, Yashiro worked to develop the fine art museum Yamato Bunkakan in Nara, and became the director when it opened in 1960. In 1970, he resigned as director and was decorated as a person of cultural merits because of his long contribution to the world of art. Yashiro passed away on May 25, 1975, at the age of 84.

Although Yashiro contributed in various ways to the world of fine art, he was most devoted to the work in the creation and running of the Institute of Art Research. Yashiro’s devotion to the Institute rests, in part, on his sweet and happy memories of younger days studying under Berenson at I Tatti and his strong desire to use Berenson’s method in the field of Asian art. On this subject, the letters between Berenson and Yashiro, the teacher and his student, clearly reveal the goals and achievements of Yashiro, and the keen interest of Berenson himself.

The Institute of Art Research after the War

In 1952, the Institute of Art Research became the Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties, with Departments of Conservation Science, Performing Arts, and Fine Arts. Other departments were added at a later date: Restoration Techniques, Information and Archives, and the Center for International Cooperation in Conservation. In 2001, it was restructured and became an independent administrative institute, known as the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Tokyo). Although the names of the departments and sections were changed since its inception, the Institute still maintains the same pillars described decades ago by Yashiro: research on tangible and intangible cultural properties, and on conservation and restoration; the collecting, organizing and publication of research materials; and international cooperation. The works acquired after World War II had been already suggested in Yashiro’s original idea for the Institute of Art Research. Today, the library has over 241,000 volumes of books and periodicals of cultural properties and 260,000 photographs of works of art. The seed that was planted in Yashiro’s mind at Villa I Tatti grew into the Institute of Art Research in Japan. Despite many changes, Yashiro's original concept for the center still survives today.

1Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 1952, 93-95; click here for translation of entire chapter. On this episode, also see the introduction to the exhibition.
2Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 87.
3For more information about the Institute, and to search its archives, see the website: http://www.tobunken.go.jp/index_e.html
4Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 239-240.
5. Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 242-243.
6.Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 242-243.
7Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 234-264.
8Yashiro Yukio, “Foundation of the Institute of Art Research and the Publication of the Journal of Art Studies,” Journal of art Studies 1 (January 1932) [“Bijutsu Kenkusho no setsuritu to Bijutsu Kenkyu no hakkan”, Bijutsu Kenkyu, pp1-7
9Regulation of the Institute of Art Research (established in November 1937), List of the Institute of Art Research, Institute of Art Research, January 1938.
10These photographs are still in the collection of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, developed from the Institute of Art Research as its origin, and are available to the public.
11After the Emperor announced the involvement in the Pacific War on December 8, 1941, with the rescript of the war, reading the rescript with a formal suit became a duty of the heads of the government institutions. On January 8, 1942, Yashiro did not wear a formal suit and misread the rescript of the war. It is said that some of the staff of the Institute felt against Yashiro because of this and submitted their letters of resignation. Yashiro received them, and he himself resigned from the Institute of Art Research. See Yashiro, My Life in the Fine Arts, 334; and Yashiro, letter of May 9, 1948