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The Story of the Ranma Panels - Part I: 1893-2005

Post By: Janice Katz
Nov 11, 2013

On permanent display at The Art Institute of Chicago are four exquisitely carved ranma, wooden architectural transoms, from the Hōōden (Phoenix Pavilion). Recognized as icons of both Chicago history and Japanese art, each panel depicts multi-colored birds with long feathers frolicking gracefully among blossoming paulownia trees that glisten with hints of gold.

The panels were, not surprisingly, one of the most decorative parts of the Phoenix Pavilion, the main national pavilion of the government of Japan at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Pavilion was situated on the Wooded Island in Jackson Park and was made up of three distinct parts that housed works of art and furnishings in the style of three Japanese historical periods. The central, main hall reflected the Tokugawa (Edo) period (c. 1600-1868), and was a suite of rooms supposedly modeled on those in Edo Castle. The ranma were from this central hall, and were located just under the ceiling in the jōdan no ma room, above a raised area where the shogun would sit to receive visitors. They were executed by Takamura Kōun, a master of Buddhist sculpture and faculty member at the Tokyo Art Academy. Although much of the artwork in this room featured phoenix imagery, the ranma by Kōun were seen as the representative phoenixes. Photos of them feature prominently in the 1893 book about the Phoenix Pavilion and photos of the room they were in were the most often reproduced interior shot of the building.

After the fair, the Japanese government gave the Phoenix Pavilion to the City of Chicago. However, within Jackson Park the building languished until 1935, when it was completely rehabilitated and landscaped within a complex of Japanese gardens. Two fires in 1946 (likely acts of arson) destroyed the structures and necessitated their demolition after another period of neglect. Only four pieces of the building are known to have remained- its four ranma panels. These were stored by the City of Chicago under the bleachers of Soldier Field (home of the Chicago Bears) until they were “discovered” there in 1973 by the Chicago Park District. Then two panels were given to the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Illinois at Chicago, and two to The Art Institute of Chicago. At the university, the panels were placed in Henry Hall. At the Art Institute, they went into storage for decades (insert the scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie here…). Read on to learn the rest of the story.

Image: 

The interior of the central part of the Hōōden as photographed by C.D. Arnold from An Illustrated Description of the Hōōden (Phoenix Hall) at the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) (Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago).

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