Ernest Fenollosa Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Fenollosa, Ernest 1853-1908

(Full name Ernest Francisco Fenollosa) American translator, art historian, educator, poet, and philosopher.

Fenollosa is considered to be one of the first Western experts in East Asian art and literature, and he is given much credit for providing the impetus for Imagist poetry through his extensive research and cataloging of Japanese and Chinese painting and ideograms. After his death in 1908, Fenollosa's widow, the novelist Mary Fenollosa, completed his two-volume manuscript Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Design. Mary Fenollosa named American poet and critic Ezra Pound her husband's literary executor, and Pound's subsequent poetry collection of Japanese translations, Cathay, gives credit to Fenollosa. Pound also completed Fenollosa's Certain Noble Plays of Japan, Noh, or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan, and The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry from Fenollosa's notes and unpublished writings. From his work with Fenollosa's notes and research materials, Pound learned concepts about Chinese and Japanese writing that he would use to formulate the tenets of Imagism and Vorticism. Pound also borrowed many of Fenollosa's ideas concerning Buddhism, to which Fenollosa had converted, and Confucianism for many of his Cantos. Fenollosa also was the subject of Van Wyck Brooks's 1962 Fenollosa and His Circle.

Biographical Information

Fenollosa was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to an immigrant Spanish musician and the daughter of an East Indian ship owner. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1874, and spent the next four years continuing his studies at Harvard and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He accepted a position as a professor of political economy and philosophy at the Imperial University in Tokyo in 1878, where he taught until 1888. From 1889 to 1890 Fenollosa was the concurrent manager of the Academy of Fine Arts in Tokyo and the Imperial Museum. During his stay in Tokyo, Fenollosa increased his knowledge of Japanese culture and art and converted to Buddhism. The escalating Westernization of Japan in the latter nineteenth century threatened to destroy much of traditional Japanese culture and art, and Fenollosa fought this trend by convincing the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to preserve much Japanese art that might have been destroyed otherwise. During this period he also helped to found the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music and traveled as a emissary of the Japanese Ministry of Education and the imperial household to study American and European methods of museum curatorship. He was accompanied to the United States by his former student, Okakura Kakuzo, who was also instrumental in introducing East Asian art to the West. Fenollosa returned to the United States in 1890, and became Curator of Oriental Art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. In 1897, he returned to Japan to teach English at the Imperial Normal School. Fenollosa accepted a teaching post in 1890 at Columbia University, and spent his remaining years teaching and lecturing on Oriental art, philosophy, and literature. He died in London in 1908.

Major Works

Fenollosa published only two major works in his life-time: East and West, a collection of poetry, and The Masters of Ukioye, a study on Japanese painting and catalog for a New York exhibition. Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited and rewritten by Ezra Pound, has evoked both critical praise and dispute. While such critics as Christine Brooke-Rose are intrigued by Fenollosa's understanding of Chinese characters as a basis for a poetic aesthetic, other critics believe his theories are based upon false etymological assumptions. Fenollosa wrote that Chinese characters present a clear mental picture rather than simply a phonetic symbol for the objects they signify. He argued that creating such a mental image is the true function of poetry and the origin of all written language. Fenollosa described metaphor as "the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations," and suggested that that mental process was the basis for all understanding of the written word. Once the symbols became immediately recognizable, their original symbolic function became forgotten. Fenollosa's best-known writings are his literal translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, which Pound used as the basis for the translations appearing in his Cathay. Among the poems Pound revised from Fenollosa's notes are "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" and "The River Song," both poems originally written by the poet Rihaku.