A primer on the Japanese art of 1868 to 1912 — an era of change which saw the end of the shogunate and an opening up to Western ideas
In 1868 the restoration of imperial rule in Japan brought the Edo shogunate to an end, and marked the start of the Meiji era, which would last until the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912. During this brief period the country experienced radical social and political shifts, and a host of reforms which propelled Japan — closed to international trade for more than 200 years — from feudalism into modernity.
The profound impact of the country’s new engagement with foreign cultures is evident in many areas of Meiji-period art, which reflected a new era for the nation and its developing relationship with the wider world.
‘The Meiji era brought Japanese art to the international stage for the first time,’ says Takaaki Murakami, Head of Japanese Art at Christie’s. The participation of Japanese artists in European exhibitions, and the establishment in 1907 of the official Bunten exhibition in Tokyo — which sought to replicate the French Salon (the official exhibition of the French Academy of Fine Arts) — introduced Japanese audiences to a wide range of artistic styles.
The Meiji period saw 'a rapid expansion of artistic forms, mediums, subjects and styles,’ explains Murakami, ‘a stark contrast to the relatively limited production — mainly swords and armour — commissioned by samurai patrons in the Edo period.’
In the medium of painting, the Meiji government promoted the yoga — or Western — style, sending Japanese students to study abroad and ‘opening the door for European artists to come to Japan to share their knowledge and technical skills,’ says Murakami.
In turn this eventually gave rise to a revival of nihonga painting, which stressed a return to traditional Japanese mediums, themes and techniques. Still, even nihonga reflected the influence of European aesthetic conventions, underlining the depth of cross-cultural links in this period. Ultimately, much of Meiji art was marked by a blending of cultures, and an innovative interchange of old and new.
Chinese art, too, was a notable influence on Meiji-era production. ‘Throughout the centuries there have always been many parallels between Chinese and Japanese art. Connoisseurs can easily find elements in Meiji Japanese art that reflect traditionally Chinese materials, techniques or themes,’ the specialist continues, ‘most notably a keen attention to plant or animal life.’ Many Meiji-era pieces ‘feature motifs such as dragons, cranes, fish or rabbits, whose auspicious connotations are deeply rooted in Chinese culture.’
A rise of interest in antiquities among Japanese collectors spurred cast-metal craftsmen such as Hata Zoroku, a master in the lost-wax technique, to focus on the replication of Chinese antiquities. Zoroku, who studied metalwork in the studio of Ryubundo in Kyoto, was renowned for his expertise in Chinese bronzes, and often authenticated archaic Chinese bronzes in Japanese collections.
With the disappearance of the samurai class, metalworkers began to create objects for the sole purpose of display. The government encouraged innovation and attention to artistry, resulting in the development of a wide range of new techniques, including combining metals with enamel.
The fine detail in these works was beyond the capability of their Western counterparts — and is hardly matched in present-day Japan. Exhibitions in both Japan and Europe brought Meiji-period metalworkers high praise, and their creations were soon highly sought-after by collectors around the world.
One of the greatest of these sculptors in metal was Muneaki (Ishikawa Musaburo), who was particularly skilled at forging small iron parts to create realistic articulated figures.
Another name to look out for is Takasaki Koichi, who developed a unique technique of applying enamel directly on an iron body — a distinctive characteristic of his artistic style. Koichi exhibited a pair of silver vases with applied enamel at the International Exposition in Paris in 1900. Today, however, only very few pieces by Koichi are known to exist.
Although the making of baskets from bamboo has a long tradition in Japan, towards the end of the 19th century it began to be recognised as an art form — basket makers such as Hayakawa Shōkosai and Tanabe Shinjō signed their work and were recognised as creative artists. During the Meiji period these masters and their apprentices branched out to create hats, bags and small pieces of furniture that were prized for their harmonising of technique and natural beauty.