Objects as Ambassadors: The Intriguing History of Meiji Applied Arts

Jun 16, 2014 6:28PM

By Melinda Takeuchi, Professor of Japanese Art History, Stanford University

For opulence, eye-catching boldness, and sheer technical virtuosity, Meiji applied arts rank among the world’s most sophisticated productions. The objects offered in the sale,Japanese Art: Meiji Period Magnificence (10-24 June) cover a range of finely crafted media including lacquer, porcelain, earthenware, cloisonné, copper, silver, iron, and bronze. They represent a new era when Japan, isolated for more than two centuries, began pulling out the stops to be recognized as one of the most advanced nations on Earth. These objects served as ambassadors to present to the world the civilization and enlightenment (bunmei kaika) of the new, post-feudal Japan.

The sweeping reforms in Meiji society brought far-reaching changes to the production and display of art. With the dissolution of the samurai class, traditional patterns of patronage gave way to new outlets. Metalworkers who had produced functional things like swords and sword fittings for warriors turned their skill to making objects for no other purpose than aesthetic display. Art and craft began to be taught in colleges and art schools, sometimes staffed by foreigners, adding a new paradigm to the traditional workshop model. World’s fairs stimulated markets for Japanese craft pieces abroad (Lots 14 and 68) were made by artists who had exhibited works both nationally and/or at world’s fairs). The vogue for Western-style parlor décor in the Victorian mode, particularly seen in the domestic furnishings of the Imperial Household and the new Meiji nobility, prompted the display of clusters of objects (okimono) made in both foreign and Japanese styles. Artists like Hata Zoroku, the creator of the silver tripod in Chinese Shang dynasty style (Lot 36), Namikawa Sōsuke (Lot 68—cloisonné enamel tray), and Namikawa Yasuyuki (see Lots 60 and64) purveyed works directly to the Imperial Household, which set the tone of display protocol for the rest of the country. The artists seen here show a range of personal histories. The Zohiko lacquerers of Kyoto (see Lot 58) had been in operation for some 300 years. Okawa Teikan, creator of Lot 1, on the other hand, was a retainer of the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family, who, once the samurai class was disbanded, turned to bronze making in Tokyo to support himself.

Collectors are beginning to recognize what museums in Europe and America have long known: that Meiji decorative art represents a universe of form, feeling, and virtuosity whose affect, once felt, exerts a powerful appeal.The Meiji style, although representing an amplified aesthetic, has deep roots in the traditional subjects, forms, and techniques of Asia. A sympathetic naturalism to plant and animal life, originating in Song dynasty China and reinforced by Edo scientific study, undergirds many of the productions seen here, in addition to the obvious influence of Western realism. We find it particularly appealing in the poignant vignette of snake, snail, and insects on the scabbard (Lot 39). Many images derive from Buddhist and Japanese folkloric traditions (Lots 24128 and 32). Traditional flower-and-bird themes abound as well, although it might be noted that in keeping with the Meiji sense of self-assertiveness, fierce birds like raptors (Lots 634 and 76) are particularly prominent. Irises (Lots38 and 91) caught the attention of Western artists like van Gogh. Meiji decorative style also influenced the art nouveau productions of Siegfried Bing and Émile Gallé.

Watch our video on the Meiji Period here.

Christies presents a diverse collection of Meiji era decorative works in our online-only sale, Japanese Art: Meiji Period Magnificence (10-24 June). (Click here for more details.) For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, visit www.christies.com/onlineonly.