In the past half century the importance of Meiji arts has once again been recognised. It is now accepted that the quality of the finest Japanese decorative metalwork made in the Meiji period (1868-1912) will never be attained again.
JAPAN: FROM ISOLATION TO THE WORLD STAGE
The large scale export of Japanese art in the last part of the 19th century was largely due to the need for Japan to compete in international trade. That need resulted in an enormous joint endeavour throughout the nation to present Japanese excellence to the outside world. So while the imported technologies of the Industrial Revolution were still being steadily absorbed, Japan relied greatly on sale of her art for income. Meiji Japan has been described as being a nation in its own right, rather than just a period in Japanese history, since there was such a sudden and far-reaching change in society. In simple terms, before 1868 Japan was a feudal culture ruled by the samurai class, and with a technology of medieval times. Then within just a few years of the Imperial Restoration Japan had an educational system to rival any other nation; railways, the telephone, modern (at the time) manufacturing machinery, and a growing modern industrialisation. The first general showing of Japanese crafts in the West had been in 1862 in London at the second International Exposition, which was followed by an Exhibition of the finest of Japanese arts and crafts in Paris in 1867, a year before the Meiji Restoration. This drew such a public following that things Japanese were to have an immediate and great impact on the arts in general, and a leading influence in the 'Art Nouveau' movement. The Emperor Meiji encouraged the arts and crafts, and he personally bought pieces at a series of Japanese Internal Industrial Fairs. Japan's art was exhibited at many International Fairs and many metal artists, like Komai, won prestigious awards.
THE KOMAI WORKSHOP
One of the most characteristic types of the new Meiji period metalwork is that of the Komai family of Kyoto, who made this pair of vases with their highly detailed damascene work. The Komai workshop is believed to have been founded in 1841, but it was only when Komai Otojiro I became its head, in 1865, that the company began to make the wares for which they were to become so famous. The workshop, under his leadership specialised in intricate inlaid work of gold and silver into iron. In a promotional brochure of about 1915 his son, Komai Otojiro II (his father having retired in 1906) called his workshop the ‘pioneer of damascene work’ and describes the process of the lacquering of the characteristic black ground, which required kiln firing and burnishing.
THE TECHNIQUES OF METAL INLAY
Besides the bronze and iron casting traditions in Japan there was the sculpture and inlay of soft metals and their coloured alloys, whose techniques and designs developed from the manufacture of metal fittings for the swords of the samurai.
The metals used were copper, bronze, and brass, with gold and silver and their alloys with copper to form shibuichi (an alloy of copper with one fourth part silver which patinates to a range of silvers, greys, and browns) and shakudo (copper with up to five percent gold which patinates to bluish, brownish, or deep dark black). There was inlay in high relief, and level inlay by inlaying soft metal into recesses carved in the body of the piece which might be iron or bronze, or other copper alloy. There was the so-called nunomezogan (fine damascene work like textile) by which gold or silver leaf was pressed into a hatchwork of lines scored into the ground of the object. This technique was used especially on iron objects like the barrels of matchlock guns, stirrups, plate armour, or iron tsuba (sword guards) which were often richly inlaid with gold or silver.
The Komai style developed with an increasingly pictorial central motif on a background of both geometric patterns and free illustrations of nature, life, and landscapes with elaborate repeating borders. Most of these central motifs illustrate stories from Japanese history or mythology, and the Komai family retains a number of design books in which can be found drawings for many of their works.
The central motif on these present vases are of course the karako, or 'Chinese children'. Karako are always depicted together with peonies on paintings, lacquer and ceramics chasing dragonflies or butterflies, and playing with balls called temari, traditionally made from scraps of old clothing packed tight and decorated overall with bands of brightly-coloured thread. These treasures were traditionally made as gifts for children at the New Year. The karako are sometimes also shown in the company of popular auspicious deities.
On this extravagant pair of vases a number of karako are shown having clambered up open fences to enter a playground world of their own quite confusing to the viewer. In the lower part of the composition on both vases a number of giant temari balls bounce around on a ground of textile patterns. One brave child has reached the pinnacle of a fence post and is stretching out towards another group on the other jar of the pair. An enterprising karako in this second group has somehow acquired a ladder, and is close to achieving the object of reaching a butterfly using ribbons tied to a wand while his companions look on. Another boy on a lower rail of the fence looks intently down towards a further butterfly rendered almost invisible among the inlaid background lines of gold inlay. On the back of the jar a karako is hanging upside-down from a rail having reached for a ball and losing his cap in the attempt. On the back of the other jar a confident boy is settling onto a bridge somehow formed from one of the long paths of folded textile-like flowing paths which make up the extraordinary world of the karako intent on a ball which has been caught against the fence. The boys all seem oblivious to the worldly scenes depicted far below them, of ships at sea, and all around the distant houses, pavilions, and temples on the black Komai ground of our reality. Among the array of different patterns are to be found fruiting vines, birds, insects, phoenix, dragon-flies, seasonal flowers, auspicious symbols, Takasagao, the 'Island of Immortality', and various brocade patterns.
The adult viewer, while becoming engrossed with the activities of the karako, will find it challenging to grasp the relation between their fantastic playground and our ordered world glimpsed here and there against the black background. With these vases the Komai studio have made a serious intellectual point about the nature of perception and left us with an amusing and challenging mind puzzle in one of the finest examples of Meiji period (1868-1912) decorative art to be found.
Christie's is grateful to Victor Harris, Keeper Emeritus of Japanese Antiquities, The British Museum, for preparing the catalogue entry.