East Asian Art

Anonymous. “Celebrate the harvest, drum up people’s enthusiasm.” Shanghai Peoples’ Fine Arts Publishing House, 1965.
Anonymous. “Celebrate the harvest, drum up people’s enthusiasm.” Shanghai Peoples’ Fine Arts Publishing House, 1965. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Since 1933, the University of Toronto has offered instruction in East Asian art history, the third institution in North America to do so, after Princeton and Columbia. The political situation in China in 1933 prevented the University from realizing its goal of establishing a Chair of Chinese Art, but the University of Toronto nonetheless began to train students in East Asian art, awarding its first PhD in the field in 1943. Major scholars and other prominent figures (the Right Reverend William White, Professor John C. Ferguson, Mr. Mark Gayn, and Professor David Waterhouse) built the extensive collection of books and research resources for East Asian art history now available in the University.

Currently, two historians of East Asian art history in the department, Yi Gu and Jenny Purtle, explore a wide range of Chinese art in their research and in their graduate seminars. Jenny Purtle provides coverage of China from the Song through Ming dynasties, Mongolia, and selected topics in modern and contemporary art; Yi Gu addresses a wide range of topics in modern and contemporary art in China, including photography. We share a commitment to the study and research of East Asian art history in dialogue with Western art historical methodologies; our recent seminars such as “Can Art History Speak Chinese?” and “Methods in Art History” reflect this interest. In recognition that East Asian art history requires not only strong art historical skills but also good philological training and heightened awareness of the geographically- and historically-specific concerns of East Asia, we are active participants in the larger community of East Asianists at the University of Toronto, and we encourage students to take courses in other departments and institutes with faculty from this community. In cooperation with faculty in other departments, a wide range of research topics can be possible at the MA and PhD level.

As historians of East Asian art, we share a commitment to the primacy of objects, studied at first hand. The city of Toronto has rich repositories of East Asian objects: the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and the Gardiner Museum all have significant permanent collections, as well as dynamic rotating exhibition programs that include East Asian material. The vibrant contemporary art scene of Toronto, including U of T galleries, provides access to works by contemporary East Asian artists. As historians of East Asian art, we also encourage the use of primary texts and archival materials in research: two specialist libraries, the Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library, and the Bishop White Committee Library of East Asia at the Royal Ontario Museum have significant holdings for East Asian art history; the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library includes important archival holdings. Scholarly research in East Asian art is further supported by the resources of the University of Toronto Libraries system, ranked the third in North America.

With two East Asianists in the art history department, a large cohort of East Asianist faculty in multiple departments throughout the University (including specialists in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan studies outside the department), and colleagues appointed to the Royal Ontario Museum in related fields (ancient Chinese archaeology, Chinese painting, modern Japanese art, and costume and textiles of the Eastern Hemisphere), the University of Toronto offers expansive opportunities for students interested in graduate study of East Asian art history. Dissertations in progress reveal the interest of faculty and students in a range of topics and approaches; this breadth is achieved in part because every dissertation committee in East Asian art includes at least one faculty member from outside the department. Current students have received prestigious grants, both those awarded by the Canadian government and those awarded by other national and private granting agencies to support their research in Toronto and abroad. We are currently engaged in a teaching and research exchange with the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts on the theme of “Global and Postglobal Perspectives on Medieval Art and Art History” to train students in Chinese and Western medieval art history in dialogue with each other as part of the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories Initiative.

With one of the largest communities of scholars pursuing research on topics related to the art history and visual culture of East Asia in North America in multiple departments, extraordinary access to objects, and excellent library holdings, the Graduate Program in Art History at the University of Toronto provides exceptional opportunities for graduate study in East Asian art history with both strong emphasis on the discipline of art history and numerous opportunities for interdisciplinary study. Please feel free to contact and/or visit us to learn more about our program.

Faculty Areas of Interest
Yi Gu

History of infographics, cold war visual culture and post-socialist art, photography of Asia, politics of aesthetics, art and amateurism, visual methodologies across disciplines

Jenny Purtle

Chinese painting history, China and Mongolia in the Global Middle Ages


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