By James Blake Wiener
Few realize that South Florida’s oldest and most comprehensive art museum is the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables. Celebrating sixty years of art and culture in 2012, the Lowe Art Museum commemorates its achievements by exhibiting its most treasured objects from Japan in Introspection and Awakening: Japanese Art From the Edo and Meiji Periods, 1615-1912. With nearly 250 works of art—including woodblock prints, paintings, ceramics, colored photographs, and specialty objects for domestic consumption like fans, incense boxes, porcelain, netsuke, and sagemono—this exhibition introduces the visitor to the wealth, splendor, and artistic diversity of early modern Japan. Divided into clearly demarcated sections by theme—“travel,” “nature,” “literati,” “history and myth,” and “urban life”—and by chronology—“Edo Period” and “Meiji Period”—the visitor intimately experiences the patterns of change and continuity.
As centuries of intermittent warfare drew to a close, a new Shogun and a new capital made an immediate impact on Japanese culture. The Tokugawa Shogunate, based in the port city of Edo (now modern-day Tokyo), was isolationist, and mandated a policy of strict social order. Nevertheless, it was also characterized by innovation and cultural dynamism, which created the most recognizable icons of Japanese culture: the geisha; the sumo wrestler; the woodblock print; and kabuki theatre.
In Introspection and Awakening, the visitor clearly sees the collision of social, political, and artistic currents, which inspired artists to craft and experiment with style, color, subject, and form. Among the highlights of the exhibition are paintings from the Kano, Ukiyo, Nanga, Rinpa, and Zenga schools. Rivalry between the numerous schools was regular and further heighted by the competitiveness between Japan’s three major cultural centers: Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Each school established standards and thus artists worked in a variety of media for patrons and customers: screens, fans, sculpture, printed books, lacquerware, and ceramics. Although the Kano school was favored among the elite officials of the Edo Period (c. 1603-1868) for its imposing large-scale paintings of nature and the seasons, the other schools proved far more popular with an enriched middle class and the samurai. They preferred scenes of everyday life, articles of popular culture, and objects that denoted their improved social standing.
As a Westerner, it’s difficult not to be intrigued by the presentation of foreigners and their influence upon Japanese art during this age of sakoku (鎖国 “extreme isolation”). Although the exhibition emphasizes the role of continued Chinese and Korean influences on Japanese art and design, the cross-cultural exchange from East to West proves, perhaps, more interesting. From 1638 until the arrival of the Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” in 1853, the shoguns outlawed Christianity, forbade the travel of Japanese abroad, and only permitted small-scale trade through select ports like Nagasaki. Here, the cosmopolitan Dutch were the only Westerners officially permitted to trade with the Japanese. Yet, several ink paintings—those of Russian soldiers are particularly fantastic and evocative—attest to the fact that small groups of foreigners made their way to Japanese shores from time to time, lured by the prosperity and exoticism of the Japanese. The visitor notices a cautious Japanese curiosity with Western physiognomy, fashions, and technology. Details, like facial features are comically exaggerated, but rendered with ease and precision regardless of the artistic medium. The exhibition also shows how, despite the wishes of her shoguns, Japan was increasingly drawn into the wider world of international commerce: Japanese potters began to export their prized porcelain and dishes abroad for Western consumption while the Dutch, in turn, influenced the modes of artistic production in Japan. Who knew that it was the Dutch that introduced “mugs” to the Japanese archipelago? It was a sign of things to come.
There are fewer items presented from the equally important Meiji Period (1868-1912), but what is displayed is striking and thought provoking. This was the topsy-turvy time in which Japan abandoned feudalism to become a confident, economic superpower, on par with Great Britain, Imperial Germany, and the United States. The Shogunate was abolished and the Emperor was restored to a position of political primacy. Western trade, technology, and art came thus to Japan at an unprecedented level. The woodcuts from this era provide a useful vantage point from which to comprehend the sweeping political and social changes transforming Japan: trains, modern bridges, and imported fashions from Paris confirm a Japan in dialogue with the West, but still in touch with its own aesthetics. The influence of the great masters of the woodblock print—Toyokuni, Hiroshige, and Harunobu—remained despite the Japanese fascination with modernity. The collection of stunning colored portraits from the beginning of the twentieth century is a highlight. Here, the visitor encounters geisha dressed in the traditional kimono but with chic French shawls. The exhibition succeeds in delineating that, while Japan was a pupil of the West, art and modernism were acculturated in strictly Japanese terms.
Introspection and Awakening: Japanese Art of the Edo and Meiji Periods, 1615-1912, is on show at the Lowe Art Museum from June 23 – October 21, 2012, in Miami, Florida. Curated by Lowe Art Museum Director and Chief Curator, Brian A. Dursum, this exhibition is drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami. A complete catalogue is forthcoming and will be available in August 2012.
For more information on the exhibit, visit the following link:
Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami
1301 Stanford Drive
Coral Gables, Florida 33124-6310
(All images courtesy of the collection from Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, 2012)