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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Continuously capturing the attractiveness and depth of Spanish art with fresh viewpoints

Yasujiro Otaka
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

From modern art to Spanish art

I enjoyed drawing since I was small and had a longing for painters. At the time of entering into a university, I learned about the art history major, and I became interested in it. At that time, it was considered in general that it would be difficult to find a job with a degree in art history and art history was merely a pastime for the rich. However, my parents encouraged me "to work hard because art history is a coming new field". So I began my study at the Art History course in the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences of Waseda University.

The popular courses at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at that time were English Literature, French Literature, and Psychology, and Art History was relatively minor. However, there were many eccentric and interesting students in the Art History course. For example, Professor Sakuji Yoshimura, who is specialized in Egypt study, was one of my classmates. From the freshman year, he was declaring his intention to go to Egypt. While being a student, he was passionately working on his interest, as was organizing an investigation team and soliciting donations from corporations. With such fellows, I had good time during my student years.

My thesis was about modern art with a focus on Picasso who was still alive at that time. The event that made me seriously interested into Spanish art was the trip to Europe in 1968. Professor Eiichi Takahashi (deceased), who was specialized in Byzantine art, organized a full-scale research trip from Soviet Union, Eastern Europe to Greek over 3 months during my first year of mater's grogram, and I was allowed to join the group. My main role was to provide assistance such as carrying shooting equipment and collecting data.

《Las Meninas》1656/ Collection in Museo del Prado

After the research, the group was dismissed in Europe. So I travelled in Italy, Spain, and France for 1 month. I visited many museums in various locations and, in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, I encountered Velazquez's "Las Meninas". It was a shocking experience. Even before then, my advisor, Professor Daigoro Sawayanagi (deceased), was telling me that I should seriously study classic art history, although he did not deny studying modern history. Seeing the classic art works with my own eyes, I was amazed by its strong presence and determined to seriously study classics while I was still young. I wrote my Master's thesis on "Verazquesz's portrait theory".

Another big turning point was my encounter with Professor Keizo Kanki (deseacsed) of Sophia University, who was specialized in Spanish art. A large exhibition of Goya was held in 1971 when I began my study at Doctor's course. At that time, Professor Kanki was a leading expert in the field. I visited his laboratory, and he gladly accepted to be my advisor. Since then, I learned a lot from him.

3 years in University of Madrid

From 1973 to 76, I studied at the doctorate course of University of Madrid. This experience formed the origin of me as a researcher of Spanish art and baroque art. Spain is one of main areas where baroque art and culture became popular during the 17th century. Baroque was closely connected with Catholicism. When the Catholicism became popular in the late 16th century, the baroque art also became popular. It was around the time when many missionaries such as Xavier came to Japan.

For 3 years, I furiously learned Spanish, visited museums to look at a lot of art works, and was buried in materials that I could only find locally in the library and historical materials room in the palace. The archives are very well organized in Spain. The Spanish people are strongly attached to history and value history. Compared to them, I feel that Japanese do not have fixed ideas, are too indifferent, and tend to easily forget things that have happened.

When I was studying in Spain, it was hard to identify where to find what materials until I physically went there. Nowadays, however, information is available every corner of the world. It is the time when a lot of information can be found on the Internet. However, I believe there are still things that you can only see and understand by deeply indulging the culture by going to the field, touching the air with a sense of history, socializing with local people, smell the food and city. This is just an aside, but I feel that the students nowadays do not have a strong sense of urgency and admiration of "I must go" or "I must see", unlike our days. I encourage them to go to the field, but they do not want to do it. It is very disappointing.

After the doctorate course at the University of Madrid, I had a choice of pursuing my study on the front line in Europe. However, I wanted to work in Japan. I thought it would also have a significant meaning for me to study Spanish art such as Velazquez, Goya or Picasso based in Japan and undertake steady activities for education and enlightenment in Japan. After I returned to Japan, I published research papers, wrote books, and was involved with planning art exhibitions, public relations, and academic activities. Through these activities, I managed to summarize my study results in various forms and have achieved self-realization as a researcher up to now.

Compilation of Goya's letters based on new perspectives

With the burst of bubble economy, the time of constant economic growth was over. Japanese have more experienced eyes for art, and they are not satisfied with seeing just famous paintings anymore. It is getting more and more important to present art works from various perspectives with provision of meaning and fun for Japanese. For example, it would be important to introduce the art works with the unknown aspects of the works or artists, instead of just bringing in the knowledge from Europe and North America. If the exhibition is not designed with a theme that convinces and satisfies the matured Japanese, people would not visit the exhibition. This is a major change.

In 2011, I received the Yu Aida Translation Award (hosted by Japan-Spanish Association) for the book "Letters of Goya" (2007), which I translated and added notes. In the 1980s, I saw various letters written by Goya, and since then, I had always wanted to translate them. There are some literatures concerning Goya's letters, but they are separately compiled based on various themes such as letters as a court painter or letters with close friends. In my book, "Letters of Goya", I looked at all of them and re-compiled them along with Goya's life, making connections between his works and artistic quality, so that general readers can also enjoy the book.

"Letters from Goya: confession and drama of a painter" Yasujiro Otaka, Noriko Matsubara Edited/translated (Iwanami shoten, 2007)

Received the "Yu Aida Translation Award", a historical award that is given to excellent Spanish/Japanese translators, in November 2011

Furthermore, I added a lot of notes. The readers cannot understand the relationship between Goya and the person who received the letter or the context of the letter, just by reading simple translated texts. Therefore, I added notes to explain the background and deep meaning of the contents of the letters. In the letters, there are some expressions such as slang that were used among friends, that you can only understand after reading the study materials or understanding the living habit and social structure of the 18th century. For example, a letter between men had a seemingly-homosexual expression such as "why don't we sleep in bed". In those days, people often say such jokes.

I had been collecting information and reading books about letters of Goya on and off. Because I made progress in my study on the letters of Goya in recent years, I thought "I may be able to do it now". As a final preparation period, I spent 4 years, focusing my research on Goya's letters, and in 2007, I finally published the book. To be honest, I feel that I have accomplished a very meaningful work. After reading the book and finding that "oh, Goya was a person who was thinking and saying these things", a new figure of Goya may appear in your mind when you see his art works.

Continuously having vivid sense

The other day, out of the blue, I had a severe back pain without known causes, and it took time to identify the name of the disease and treatment method. Fortunately, the doctors found that it could be completely treated by operation at an early stage. Although the operation was tough, I managed to complete the treatment and return to my daily life. For many days on the hospital bed, I was telling myself, "This is divine intervention. This means that it is time to seriously think what I can do in the remaining life." (laugh)

There are a few things that I must undertake as a compilation of my research life. First, I want to compile information about Verazquesz in an easy to access and read form like "new books". This is an assignment from Mr. Yoshie Hotta (deceased), a writer whom I met when I was young. Second, I want to compile all my research papers and publish a book.

From left, Mr. Yoshie Hotta, next to him but one, Professor Keizo Kamiyoshi, and Professor Otaka. Madrid, summer in 1973.

Mr. Yoshie Hotta used to write the series of stories about Goya in a magazine, and I assisted him in collecting information and accompanying him for his visit to see art works in Spain. I still remember his word, "Mr. Otaka, even if you are a scholar, your research papers must be enjoyable to read. Otherwise, it is meaningless." I take his word as a lesson not to slip into self-complacency of scholars and always keep it in my mind. When Dictator Franco, who ruled Spain with military government, died in November 1975, Mr. Hotta and I celebrated it with Spanish sparkling wine called Cava in a bar in Spain. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

I still want to go back to Spain and look at the real art. Impression and memory are ambiguous, and even a specialist can quickly forget the first impression after seeing only once. The most dangerous thing is to fix the first impression while being influenced by your mental status. There is no meaning of pursuing art history if you do not receive new stimulation from art works anymore. I would like to lead my life while always keeping vivid and fresh sense to art works.

Yasujiro Otaka
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Kagawa. Studied at Graduate School of Waseda University and Doctoral Course of University of Madrid. Worked at Atomi University and Faculty of Foreign Studies of Sophia University. Currently, professor of Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences of Waseda University. Specialized in Spanish art history. Published books: "Velazquez" (Chuokoron), "NHK Museo del Prado" (co-author), "El Greco" (Asahi Shinbunsha), "Goya" (Shogakkan). Co-author/co-translation works: "Picasso Vivo (by Fabre)" (Heibonsha), "The drawings of Goya (by Gassier)", "The letters of Goya (by Gassier)", and "Dali (by Schiebler)" (all, Iwanami Shoten), and others.