Publications - Arts of Imperial Japan Introduction
At the end of the 19th into the
first decades of the 20th century, the arts in Japan experienced
a renaissance. Wealth and patronage combined with a tradition
that valued superb craftsmanship and believed art to be part of
civilized life. A reexamination of Japan’s artistic heritage and
a discussion of what it meant to be modern and Japanese was
invigorated by a deep curiosity about other cultures, both
Western and Asian. Imperial government patronage of the arts
ranged from educational institutions such as the Tokyo School of
Fine Arts to the sponsorship of national art exhibitions,
governmental backing for Japanese art to travel for exhibition
abroad, widespread purchase of art at domestic exhibitions and
as well as the lavish commissioning of art for the imperial
collections and to be given as gifts. The rising middle class
aspired to be part of this world. Hundreds of thousands
travelled to attend the great national art exhibitions.
Professional pride and competition between artists at exhibition
brought standards of craftsmanship and quality to unequaled
levels. A responsive and highly educated audience supported this
world of creativity.
Few realize today that during the early 20th century a pair of
inlaid and chased silver vases of high quality cost the
equivalent of a fine house in the best quarters of Kyoto or
Tokyo. This was true not only for metalwork, but for the other
applied arts as well as paintings. Little of the best quality
was exported, though oceans of mediocre, decorative material
flowed to the West. Of the very high quality art shown by
Japanese artists at international expositions in Europe and
North America, most was too expensive to be understood by
foreigners and returned to Japan. One such piece was the inlaid
vase decorated with sea life by Tsukada Shükyö that won the gold
prize at the Japan-British Exhibition in 1910 (number 28 below
in this catalogue).
During this era, the arts in Japan also saw an evolution in
aesthetics towards a more refined, elegant sense of design.
Often (though not always) this involved a preference for simpler
composition and a dramatic use of empty space to balance design
motifs. In this stylization may lie some of the seeds of the
modernist abstraction that grew luxuriantly in the late 1920s
and 1930s. Naturalism, a delight in the depiction of the natural
world, breathed in all the arts of period.
With this catalogue we look at a selection of late Meiji and Taishō
metalwork, lacquers and cloisonné enamels. The quality of the
workmanship may never again be equaled and is reason enough to
marvel and celebrate. A sense of beauty and joy in the natural
world echoes throughout the work and reminds us of the wonder of
life. Art can do no more.