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Freya Schwachenwald: Visions of the East. Art, Science and Nation Building in the works of Germanophone traveling artists in the 19th century. Fragmented historical ontologies of racialized aesthetics, objects and humans

My research investigates artworks by Germanophone artists traveling through Japan and China in the 1850s and 1860s, either individually or as part of diplomatic missions. The works of artists such as Joseph Selleny, Albert Berg, Carl Bismarck, August Sachtler, John Wilson, Wilhelm Heine and Eduard Hildebrandt have so far received only limited art historical attention. However, rather than shedding light on a neglected part of the history of art, my aim is to understand the epistemological transformations the ‘artists’ and their ‘works’ have undergone over time. Their works rarely reside in art or print museums, but mostly in the archives of natural history, military, or ethnographic museums. Their collections are fractured, scattered in institutions from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Berlin and Washington, D.C. Ideas of artistic originality and reproduction are permeable, as the collections consist of photographs, sketches, watercolors, oil paintings and diverse forms of prints, etchings and engravings. The works of the artists have received different attributions over time, from ‘works of art’ to ‘historical documents’ to ‘topographical’ and ‘ethnographic studies.’ Similarly, the individuals themselves have undergone different professional attributions, not only as artists, but also as authors of travelogues, ethnographic lecturers, museum directors, professors of art academies, cartographers and historians.

Taking these fragments at the center of my research, I want to reconsider the redemptive trend of current research to finding ‘new’ and, in the best case ‘alternative’ narratives as a mode of engaging with colonial violence. My project is to trace the instable ontologies of aesthetics, human subjectivity and object life and their specific contexts in Europe and East Asia. I argue that the physical and visual excessiveness of the material that I work with – it being stored away in the archive, but ready for art historical discovery, its hauntingly familiar visual structures and narratives - are linked to specific racializing, and thus violent epistemologies of art, knowledge and nationalism that permeate images, texts, and institutions. These epistemologies impact the political, social and economic engagement with images from colonial travels and expeditions from the 19th century until today.

Advisor: Prof. Dr. Bénédicte Savoy

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