We are our own most keenest observers, whether it be in the bathroom mirror or in the department store window. But while the face is humankind’s most distinctive feature, we are also remarkably poor at getting ourselves in perspective. When asked what size their face appears on the mirror surface, the majority of people reply incorrectly — life size. The image is exactly half. Since we cannot get the measure of ourselves, should we expect better when trying to capture the visage of distant, strange or unknown others?

A case in point is the “Directly Painted Portrait of Perry,” by an unknown Japanese artist in the mid-19th century. Matthew Perry was the Commodore in the U.S. Navy charged with opening Japan to trade after its long period of isolation (though the exhibition catalog makes a case for why this is not exactly true), a task which he began with his first visit in 1852. Perry is depicted with an enormously long blue nose, lips that look like worms pressed together and inwardly sloping eyes, more demon than human. In fact, this image follows a convention from ukiyo-e (genre paintings) whereby Westerners were depicted as karasu-tengu — or crow-goblins — deities within Japanese lore that were enemies of Buddhism and abducted children. In a portrait such as this, these are someone else’s thoughts, mirrored in another’s face.

The misrepresentation of others before and after first contact, the representation of the self and others on their terms and in their mediums, and the self and other in contemporary oblivion are the themes of “Self and Other: Portraits from Asia and Europe,” split between The National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, and The National Museum of Art, Osaka. The exhibition is ambitious, a product of the Asia-Europe Museums Network that will show in Singapore, London and elsewhere. Each venue will draw upon the collection of the host institution, and thus the exhibitions will have a slightly different “face” in each location.

The exhibition begins conventionally with portraits done by artists in their native countries of their own countrymen practicing their own traditions. At the extremes are works in oil like Thomas Murray’s “William III” (date unknown), which shows the portrait’s relation to wealth and power, and a Chinese ancestor portrait done in ink and color “Civil Official of the 5th Rank” (c. 1750-1850) which shows the connection to filial piety and commemoration — an odd achievement given that the artist and sitter remain unknown.

In cross-cultural contact, these mediums and representational methods were an affront to foreign eyes. The Dutch travelogue by Johan Nieuhof of 1665 found fault with Chinese methods for their lack of shadows and inability to temper color, reporting: “Their paintings look like dead corpses.” The Chinese, for their part, were horrified by the black stain beneath the chin on a portrait of George III by Joshua Reynolds — the shadow which Westerners took as evidence of the superiority of their own art.

Other sections offer up art works in “one’s own style” and “adopting the other’s style,” the latter indicative of a modern, enlightened bent. “In one’s own style” is easily the more bizarre of the sections. The unknown artist of the “Portrait of Ito Mancio” (1585), painted at the time of the Japanese mission’s audience with Pope Gregory XIII, behaved as if no Asian physiognomy existed, and an ukiyo-e print by Ikkosai Yoshimori, “Portrait of Americans” (1860), portrays western features as similar to those of kabuki actors. This is surely what Rudyard Kipling meant when he penned that East and West would never meet.

But when they did finally meet, there arrived an altogether more disastrous consequence. While the handful of Western artists who succumbed to the seductions of Japanese art, such as in Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithograph “Divan Japonais” (1893), went on to become art historical giants, their non-European counterparts who took up Western styles remained largely unknown. The situation could undoubtedly be worse for a Westerner taking up a Japanese method and style. Who now remembers the American Helen Hyde, whose woodblock prints such as “The Bamboo Fence” (1904) attempted with such sincerity to continue Japanese tradition?

In a sense, the invitation to see many of these works as portraits is a lie. Like the Japanese prints of kabuki actors, one person plays another beneath stylized gestures and thick makeup — the underlying purpose being entertainment. Contemporary art relishes obscuring the individual, a point in case being photographer Yasumasa Morimura made up as Van Gogh. In our own age of identity politics, rather than trying to pull the self into finer focus, the insistence appears to be on “othering” the self. This potentially dark message is given artistic form in the video work “COSPlayers” (2004) by Cao Fei, where bored teenagers, the product of infantile city life, can only bring color into their worlds, and even human engagement, when in the prepackaged costumes and roles of fictional characters.

“Self and Other: Portraits from Asia and Europe” is at The National Museum of Ethonology, Osaka , till Nov. 25 and the National Museum of Art, Osaka , till Nov. 24; both museums are open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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