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T. Kaori Kitao

William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emerita

Emeritus Art History


Kaori Kitao headshot


A.B., Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, June 1958
M.A., History of Art, University of California, Berkeley, January 1961
Ph.D., History of Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Areas of Specialization

Renaissance and Baroque
Architecture and Urban Studies
Cinema Studies
Material Culture
Japanese Studies 

Biographical Statement

My Art History: 06.01.00

I taught art history for almost four decades. It was my profession. But, ironically, I don't believe what I profess is art history. Art history, in my view, is a misnomer. What I profess is Study of Art. More accurately still, what I study is works of art, and what I profess is, therefore, how to study and understand works of art in our cultural heritage.

Art historians organize works of art through the centuries historically, era by era, culture by culture. But when we study them chronologically, we have a chronicle of artists and their works rather than history of art. History of art, or art history, suggests that art has a history. Though this idea has been taken for granted since the dawn of the discipline, it is decidedly an imprecise idea. Art is not an organism; it doesn't evolve developmentally. Art is a concept encompassing a range of works of art. We can study changing concepts of art, that is to say, changing notions as to what artifacts in a given culture constitute art. We are then dealing with history of ideas, not of works of art. To become an art historian, we were schooled in art history. But what we were schooled in was, strictly speaking, stilentwicklungsgeschichte, that is to say, history of evolving styles of art rather than history of art; the focus of such a study is collective trends rather than individual works.

Hans Belting, pondering the state of art history, questioned if we have come to the end of the history of art (Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte?, Munich, 1983), but in so doing he also recognized the existence of the history of art. So, perhaps there is, but I've lost sight of it.

More recently, art historians' interest shifted from style to historical contexts of art. To be sure, historical contexts of works of art are by no means irrelevant. But the effort to affirm the importance of historical contexts quickly erodes into viewing contextuality as causality in the creation of works of art, and thereby the role of the artist -- named or anonymous -- in the production of the artifacts comes to be neglected.

Reflecting on my own art history, I realize that the focus of my interest has always been first and foremost the genesis of works of art in the creative minds of their makers as revealed in the works themselves, and only secondarily the social circumstances surrounding them.

Every work of art is unique, as an individual is unique, and the work's singularity owes to the artist's unique personality. Society certainly takes part in forming that personality, but the creative act is her or his own, not of the class of which the artist happened to be a member. Even in collective efforts, like quilting and manufacture, a series of decisions are individual contributions.

The most fundamental question I ask is, therefore, why a particular work looks the way it does and how it differs from its kin. Critical acumen, which I am intent on cultivating in my students, starts with the training of the eye to discriminate, that is, to see differences where they were not evident before, and only then they begin to understand that all works are not equal. Some works are greater than others -- more moving, more exciting, more refined, more perfect, more profound, more inspiring, and even more beautiful, perhaps. Historical context of a given work is relevant in so far as it contributes to this process of critical discrimination.

Every artifact is a product of human work. It is shaped by the hand and the mind guided by the judicious eye. This is true not only of works of art but of all artifactual objects -- handcrafted objects as well as machine-made objects. None of them could have come into existence without first having been conceived and then realized in physical form by some individual or individuals; and this is accomplished by way of drawings, mental and physical. In my courses, whether dealing with Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or American architecture, or with cinema, townscape, cities, gardens, and everyday things, I am essentially concerned with the single issue of form and signification, that is to say, the matter of visual semiotics.

Study of art sharpens and deepens our awareness of the visual world, or it should. Life is then so much the richer. As I often told my students, I may appear to deal with a wide variety of subjects but the truth is that I put on the same play in all my courses -- just with different characters. History in the service of Art -- that's my art history. Not vice versa. 

Professional Activities 

Rhode Island State Board of Registration for Architects: Examination

Examiner in History and Theory, May 1965 American Institute of Architects, Philadelphia Chapter AIA Refresher Courses Program, 1970-72 Sloan Foundation: Project Director, 1985-

Sloan Foundation Faculty Seminar: Automation - Fear and Promises Swarthmore College, Spring 1986

Swarthmore Alumni College Abroad: Baltic Seas; Lecturer, August 1986 Swarthmore Alumni College Abroad: Japan, Korea, China; Lecturer, May 1992

Swarthmore College List Gallery Exhibit: Swarthmore Collects Co-curator, 27 October - 21 November, 1993

Swarthmore College Lifelong Learning New York, 2010 

Selected Publications

“Architecture: What Makes it great?”, SPACE (Landscape Architecture, University of California), 1957, pp. 7-8

"Prejudice in Perspective: A Study of Vignola's Perspective Treatise," Art Bulletin, XLIV (1962), pp. 173-94

"Bernini's Church Facades: Method of Design and the Contrapposti," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, XXIV (1965), pp. 263-84 

"Michelangelo," The American Peoples Encyclopedia, Grolier Incorporated, New York, 1969 

Circle and Oval in the Square of Saint Peter's: Bernini's Art of Planning, College Art Association Monograph on Archaeology and the Fine Arts, NYU Press, New York, 1974 

"Philadelphia Row House," Swarthmore College Bulletin, LXXIV, Alumni Issue, April 1977, 6-11 

"Carlo Fontana Had No Part in Bernini's Planning For the Square of Saint Peter's," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, XXXVI (1977), pp. 85-93

"Imago and Pictura: Perspective, Camera Obscura and Kepler's Optics," Atti del Convegno: La prospettiva rinascimentale - codificazioni e trasgressioni, Florence, 1978 

"The Tokonoma and the Classical Facade: Semiotics of Hierarchy in Architecture," Comparative Civilizations Review, No. 2, Spring 1979, 18-37

"The Art of Seeing: How To See More of What Meets the Eye," Swarthmore College Bulletin, September 1983 

"Rocks, Islands, Mountains and the Japanese Garden," Japanese Gardens, Brooklyn Botanical Garden Publications, New York, May 1985 

"Introduction to the College President's Inaugural Symposium," in Educating for Civic Responsibility in a Multicultural World (The Swarthmore Papers, I, 1, January 1993), ed. Barry Schwartz 

"Frenzy and Mastery: Loose Style East and West," Midwest 5, 1994

“Teaching Slides with Art History, or The Pernicious Effect of Teaching Art History with Quality Slides,” Visual Resources Association Bulletin, XXV-2, Summer 1998, 38-41

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Admissions Office Publication, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, 1999 "The Usefulness of Uselessness," Swarthmore College Bulletin, June 2000

"Introduction," in Ben Yagoda, The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College: The First 75 Years, Virginia Beach, Va, 2003

“Yogini and Mynah Bird: On he Poetics and Politics of Transspecies Meditation: Further Meditations,” Mocking Bird Technologies, Fordham University Press, 2018

Kaori Kitao's Website:, 1998-2005
Kaori Kitao's Blog:, 2009-