Art of the Meiji Era

Six-fold Screen

Oxford is a layered city, a set of nested boxes hiding treasures at their very centre. It is perfectly possible for friends and housemates to spend years living here while having entirely different experiences, depending, amongst other things, on personal proximity to the University and the choice of College. What and how much you learn is left largely up to you, allowing both the freedom of selection and the danger of missing out. The same is true of life in general, but one can hope that such cultural centerpieces as Hassan’s, May Morning, punting on the River, and LiveFridays at the Ashmolean Museum are not ignored by too many Oxonians.

I try to start my day with meditation and I try to start my weekends at the Ashmolean. It sets the right tone of curiosity and wonder that can later be easily taken to a pub (What’s in that pie?) or a bar (What’s in my drink?). Last Friday the museum was open after hours, until 8 in the evening, and so I spent a while there: listening to a lecture first, wandering around the rooms afterwards.

If there is a particular Oxford place that perfectly illustrates my point about hidden treasures, it is the Ashmolean. Each visit guarantees a discovery, what with the museum collection including Turners and Picassos, as well as antiquities from Prehistoric Egypt. This time I found Room 36, the ‘Japan from 1850’ gallery dedicated to the art of the Meiji era.

From the museum label:

Art of the Meiji Era (1867–1912)

‘Cherish old knowledge so that you can acquire new’
Analects of Confucius

Following the opening of Japan, the government was eager to achieve equal status with the industrialized Western nations. Every effort was made to modernize Japan along Western lines. At the same time, official institutions and individuals alike tried to preserve the best from Japan’s past.

For Japanese artists this meant incorporating Western technology and designing their products to suit Western taste, while also drawing on their traditional skills. For example, makers of sword fittings adapted their metalworking skills to produce elaborate ornamental vases. Potters experimented with chemical glazes. Painters began to use oil paints and study Western art.

The description leaves a Miyazakian impression: the cityscape of Howl’s Moving Castle, a cultural mix ordered into being on a schedule, rather than grown through prolonged osmosis.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the Emperor regained power from the Shogunate, foreign ships began to visit Japan once again. Following centuries of isolation during Sakoku (1633–1866), the foreign relations policy that prevented travel to or from Japan, there was understandably little contact with the islands. The return of first European expeditions started the Western fascination with Japanese art and collectibles — Japonism. Prints, textiles, ceramics and enamels became fashionable, coveted items in England and France. The imported style proved to be highly influential, leaving its mark on Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Modernism as European artists searched for an escape from Academism and Greco-Roman tradition.

Meiji, Emperor of Japan and the Imperial Family

The effects of Japonism are long-lasting. Hokusai’s prints have become part of the collective Western conscious to the point of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the first work in his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji, being an Apple ‘water wave’ emoji. The treatment of negative space, the preference of balance over symmetry, composition and the approach to dimensions have all undergone palpable changes, the results of which can be observed in contemporary visual culture. Yet, that is our, Western side of the coin. It is fascinating to learn what influence European art had in Japan in turn.

Watanabe Shōtei (1851–1918) was an artist who made Nihonga (‘Japanese-style paintings’, as opposed to Yōga, ‘Western-style paintings’), using traditional techniques and materials. Shōtei was one of the first Japanese painters to visit Europe, attending the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris — the same exhibition that showcased the newly-made and not yet assembled Statue of Liberty. The Exposition Universelle brought Shōtei a medal and, his work well-received in France, he stayed in the City of Light for three years, studying Western art with particular emphasis on watercolour. He travelled extensively, both within Europe and to the United States, winning prizes at numerous exhibitions (in Amsterdam in 1883, in Chicago in 1893). A prolific painter, artisan and an author of several books on paintings, Shōtei became something of a celebrity and, certainly, one of the best-known Japanese artists outside of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Six-fold Screen

There was a happy marriage of mutual interest — Japonism in the West and Japan’s quest to establish itself on par with the rest of industrialised world — that extended to watercolour painting. I have come across assertions that it was the Pre-Raphaelites and Romanticists whose influence can be noticed in Japanese watercolours of the Meiji Era, but I am having trouble pointing out anything palpably Romantic in the Nihonga of the period. Perhaps, the influence was of ideas rather than images, as both artistic movements were inherently nostalgic for the pre-Industrial times and deeply appreciative of craft.

Catering to Western tastes meant recreating the traditional Japanese style in bulk, which was facilitated by the use of prints. Watercolours, on the other hand, were unique, and the screen exhibited at the Ashmolean is a brilliant example of Watanabe Shōtei’s art reserved for private use and quiet appreciation.

From the museum label:

Watanabe Shōtei (1851–1918) 渡辺省亭
Six-fold screen, one of a pair, showing birds and flowers of spring and summer
Around 1900
Ink and colours on paper within a silver foiled paper border mount and lacquer frame

The artist Watanabe Shōtei (also known as Seitei) trained in the traditional Japanese painting style but was inspired by Western art, particularly by watercolour painting, while living in Paris in the 1870s. He combined elements of Western realism with traditional Japanese techniques and subject matter to create a style that has been described as ‘between East and West’.

This is the right-hand screen of a pair. Each panel shows a bird and plant associated with particular month of the year. Japanese screens are ‘read’ right to left, so this screen starts with January on the right and finishes with June on the left.

Purchased with the aid of funds provided by the Art Fund, Victoria & Albert Fund and the Friends of the Ashmolean Museum.


March (Detail)

The vertical line near the middle is a shadow left by the glass panes that form the protective case around the exhibit; see the full picture of the screen further above.

Each screen panel bears a depiction of a scene that is both symbolic and associated with the month that is the subject of the painting. Hens and roosters huddled on the right-hand side of the panel symbolise March: spring and light, the arrival of the Sun. According to a folklore tradition, it is rooster’s crowing that lured Amaterasu, the solar goddess out of the cave where she had been hiding. Roosters are thus closely linked to the cult of Amaterasu, and chickens can often be seen roaming around Shinto temples — here are some birds that live by Isonokami Shrine. Japanese emperors are considered to be direct descendants of Amaterasu, and so the panel above has a connection to Meiji himself.

(The assumption that royalty have divine ancestry is about as uncommon in the 21st century as royalty. Queen Elizabeth II is supposed to descend from Odin, for example. Queen Elizabeth II. Odin. Alright.)

The combination of ink and colour, of the ‘wet in wet’ technique used to a soft, organic effect and of the precise, detailed work on birds’ feathers and feet make for a superb contrast. Repeated arched lines coming from the top right corner, complimented by the direction of the larger rooster’s gaze (is he after Amaterasu, perhaps?), create dynamism. I especially admire the play with volume and depth which are, at once, present and not really there.

May (Detail)

The second panel on the left, depicting a heron, is dedicated to the month of May. The white heron (or crane) is a Japanese symbol of purity, longevity, and fidelity, but — as with the roosters in the March panel discussed earlier — the presence of the bird is not just abstractly symbolic, but also connected to a certain time of year.

On the second Sunday in April Shirasagi-no-mai, ‘White Heron Dance’ takes place in Tokyo. Dating from the Heian Era (794–1192), the ceremony was originally performed to purify the spirits on their passage to the next world. The white heron was considered divine and able to drive away both plague and demons. This annual ritual was chronologically close enough to May for Shōtei to think of the white heron as a suitable subject for his calendar-themed work.

Another symbol depicted on the May panel is the iris. There is a belief that the iris, with its sword-like leaves, gives protection against evil spirits that run rampant on the fifth day of the fifth month. May 5th, Boys’ Day in Shōtei’s time, was a celebration of masculinity and warrior spirit. In its serenity, the painting is about protection and not aggression, but its meaning supersedes that of a still-life.

As with the previous panel, the artistic style is graceful and the use of colour, laconic and effective. Although compositionally the March panel is more interesting, here we have a curious use of unending vertical lines which suggests infinity — a suitable parallel to longevity. It is this part of the six-fold screen that is decorated with Watanabe Shōtei’s signature (black-ink kanji on the right) and seal.

The six-fold Meiji screen exhibited at the Ashmolean might be one of my favourite works found at that museum. It is exquisite without being overwhelmingly ornate, and rich in detail and readings. I am curious as to where its twin is held, the one with the scenes from July to December.

Current album: Christine and the Queens, Chaleur humaine
Current book: Jan Wagner, Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees
Current TV series: Gravity Falls, Series 2 (2014–2016)

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