Japanese art and how it came to rule the west … for a short period

Several weeks back I wrote a feature on the Shibayama box and in doing the research, was surprised once again at how relatively “new” Japanese art is to the West, so today’s feature is all about this.

The West has always been fascinated by Japan. For centuries the island nation was closed to all but a handful of Dutch and Portuguese traders and the limited trickle of goods that came back with them to Europe only gave a tantalizing look at this foreign kingdom. It wasn’t until the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived like a cowboy with guns ablazin’ in 1854 that Japan opened its ports to Western trade. Japan quickly realized that they had fallen desperately behind the world in terms of technology and industry, and the following decade saw great social upheaval as feudal Shogun rule was overthrown and the Emperor resumed control and modernized the country.
Part of these new changes was that the Samurai class was no longer permitted to wear swords and arms in public. As there were almost 2 million members of this ruling class, this naturally left a huge gap in the economy for the thousands of metalworkers who faced the loss of their traditional craft. Many quickly shifted focus to create beautiful mixed-metal wares like the bronze vase photographed above, which shows off the skills and talents of the artisans.
Cloisonné had long been a Chinese tradition, but looking to expand their exports, the Japanese took to creating beautiful cloisonné pieces incorporating their unique aesthetic with Western forms. The box shown above, with its Imperial Chrysanthemum, perfectly represents the fine quality and attention to detail displayed in Japanese art.
More traditional Japanese arts, like ivory carving, also found new markets in Europe where although the mythology of the masks depicted on the carved ivory jar featured here would have been lost on all but the most passionate Japanese scholar, the craftsmanship and wonderful detail in the expression of each face still engages and enthralls today.
When the Japanese government participated in the Paris Exposition in 1867 and subsequently the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the craze for all things Japanese ignited, leading many western companies like Tiffany and Gorham to adapt these traditional techniques into their wares.
image credits: Christies. (Top) A Bronze Vase, signed Joun Koku and Nogawa Mark, Meiji Period (late 19th century). Sold 18 May 2012, London, for £1,125; (Center) Cloisonné Box and Cover, Mark of Ando Workshop, Meiji Period (late 19thCentury).  Sold 18 May 2012, London, for £3,500; (Bottom) Carved Ivory Box and Cover, Signed Homin, Meiji Period (late 19th century).  Offered 18 May 2012, London, estimate £6,000- $8,000
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