By Nasser D. Khalili
In a way all my work is founded on Japanese art …
Vincent van Gogh
Meiji: treasures de Japon imperial in Paris is the latest manifestation of a growing appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic in the West. Ever since the Collection’s first milestone 1994 exhibition Japanese Imperial Craftsmen: Meiji art from the Khalili Collection at the British Museum, the idea of Japonisme – the late 19th century European fascination for Japanese art and culture – has seen something of a revival. Having amassed, conserved, researched, published and exhibited the largest Meiji art collection outside of Japan, we at the Khalili Collections are proud and honoured to have played an important role in this revival.
As a collector, I had always looked to awaken what I call ‘sleeping giants’ and bring them to the attention of the world. One of these was art from Japan’s Meiji Era, spanning 1868 to 1912. It was a cultural heritage lying dormant, forgotten between athe pages of history, until we discovered and awoke it from its slumber. I first fell deeply in love with the Japanese aesthetic in the early 1970s. Overwhelmed by the quality of the craftsmanship, I bought several pieces of Japanese earthenware whilst I was still a student in New York. I could see that the finest potters are like alchemists, using the four basic elements — water, earth, wind and fire — to transform what is essentially dirt into sublime works of beauty. In Japan, they did this with extraordinary skill, precision and style.
As I added more and more pieces to the Collection, I found myself increasingly in awe of the mastery of Meiji artists and artisans. Not only was I unable to conceive of how they had created such magical objects, but I was astonished at how little information was available about this art. Determined to explore this enigma, I continued collecting their works, commissioning scholars to study them under my leadership, and putting on exhibitions with a passion that has never abated. In the early 1990s, I set up the Kibo Foundation — Kibo means ‘hope’ in Japanese — as a means to hold this collection and promote the study of Meiji art and design.
It is no exaggeration to say that a Collection which features such a variety of beautiful, intricate objects of such technical precision would be impossible to replicate today. This was a sentiment echoed when we inaugurated our first Japanese exhibition at the British Museum in 1994, titled Japanese Imperial Craftsmen: Meiji art from the Khalili Collection, curated by the then Keeper of the Department of Japanese Art at the British Museum, Victor Harris. In a speech at the inauguration, he thanked me for amassing such a collection, a feat, he said ‘could not possibly be duplicated or even approached by any museum in the world today’.
Indeed, during the promotion of the exhibition, the British Museum claimed that the quality of workmanship found in these masterpieces would be ‘unlikely ever to be attained again’. This is a crucially important point especially as during the late 19th century enamel production was at its zenith, and much attention has been paid over the years to European masters such as Faberge. The Japanese, who were producing work far surpassing the enamel seen in Europe at the time, received very little notice in the following years until I had brought their work to the attention of the world. After all, there is a reason why the Japanese attained most of the medals given out in international exposition, and why the techniques invented by them at the time were largely imitated throughout the world, as is highlighted later. Whilst one could argue it is relatively easy to replicate a Faberge, to replicate the work of the Japanese master is nigh on impossible.
Between 1994 and 1996 we published the nine-volume study of the collection, entitled Meiji No Takara: Treasures of Imperial Japan – a massive feat of scholarship which took seven years to prepare. It featured essays and catalogue entries by leading academics and curators, including the late Dr. Oliver Impey who had been a curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, with whom he had a 40 year career. In addition, there were contributions from some of the most esteemed Japanese scholars in the field, such as Sato Doshin of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Hida Toyojiro of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. The Collection went on to be displayed in many other countries and venues around the world, including the UK, Japan, the US, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Israel.
One of the most visited exhibitions we had the pleasure to stage was at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2006 and this explored the connection the great artist had with Japanese art. This ground-breaking exhibition left us with a desire to further examine the notion of ‘Japonisme’ – the term given to the West’s infatuation with Japanese art in the 19th century – in greater detail. This in turn saw the publication ‘Japonisme and the rise of the modern art movement’, superbly edited and written by Gregory Irvine, Senior Curator in the Asian Department of the V&A, and with contributions by many eminent scholars hailing from Japan and elsewhere. This landmark exhibition and publication undeniably paved the way for a deeper exploration of this connection between Van Gogh and Japonisme.
Indeed, it is a great matter of pride for me as a scholar and collector to have spotlighted this relationship – one that had been long hypothesised by art historians but could now for the first time be examined in detail in our Collection. An apt example was the comparison made between our tray made by Namikawa Sosuke and Van Gogh’s The Sower, both shown against one another below.
In his many letters to letter to his brother, Theo, Van Gogh had often commented on his utter admiration and fascination with Japanese art. Some of these references can be seen in the following excerpts:
‘It is rather like Japanese art, once you love it, you never go back on it’
‘So come, isn’t what we are taught by these simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion? And one cannot study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming merrier and happier, and we should turn back to nature in spite of our education and our work in a conventional world’
‘I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity of everything in their work. It is never dull and it never seems to be done in too much of a hurry. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes as if it were as easy as doing up your waistcoat.’
Ultimately, he would make the following admission, which is perhaps the greatest confirmation of Japanese influence on his art: ‘In a way, all my work is founded on Japanese art’
It is not hard to see why Japanese art had such a firm grip on Van Gogh’s imagination. With its ingenious use of colour and stylised approach to nature and the elements, Japanese artists provided rich inspiration for the intense and unconventional art of Van Gogh and his fellow Impressionists. Japanese art provided a vital ingredient to the sweeping changes which took the late 19th century art world by storm, and provided a new wealth of inspiration as traditional European artistic canons were rejected. It supported the two pillars of the new art movement: innovation and experimentation, providing rich examples and innovative approaches to form and abstraction, as well as a wealth of new techniques.
An example can be seen in his painting Almond Blossom created in 1890, shown here next to a late 19th century vase by Japanese artist Andō Jūbei.
This vase displays the traditional aesthetic values and deep appreciation of nature, which influenced artists of Van Gogh’s generation. Certainly the impressionists were – Van Gogh himself claims ‘we like Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the impressionists have that in common’ and indeed, since its arrival on Western shores the Japanese aesthetic has seeped deep into the consciousness of Western art, arguably influencing all modern art that followed in the process. Whether it be sensitivity to abstraction, harmony, or even the chaos contained in a flower, echoes of Japanese art can be found everywhere.
It is critical at this stage to assert a very important point. Van Gogh, who was quite poor, relied mainly on prints as this was the most affordable and available source material at the time. In fact, some of them came even from newspaper wrapping which covered objects arriving from Japan. As such, he and Theo were able to obtain many images. ‘You will be able to get an idea of the revolution of painting when you think, for instance, of the brightly coloured Japanese pictures that one sees everywhere, landscapes and figures’, he stated in a letter of 1888. ‘ Theo and I have hundreds of Japanese pictures in our own possession.’
These images, however, were not what really captured his heart and stirred his creative imagination. The magic really began when he visited the Parisian shop of Siegfried Bing, a German who had settled in Paris and provided Japanese art and design for collectors and museums around Europe. Van Gogh visited Bing’s shop on many occasions and wrote of the marvels within in his letters to Theo. Seeing masterpieces of metalwork, porcelain, and enamel where the images reproduced in prints come alive in vivid colour and pulsating with life must have fuelled his obsession. Indeed, in our Japonisme book, Kris Schiermeier notes ‘While the influence of Japanese paintings and prints on Van Gogh’s work is well documented, the ready availability during his lifetime of three-dimensional Japanese art forms should not be overlooked as a further major source of inspiration’.
In fact, one of the few gifts the Van Gogh brothers had given to their mother for her birthday was a simple and inexpensive Japanese enamel vase, which is now kept at the Van Gogh Museum, donated by the Van Gogh family.
It was Van Gogh’s own love of nature and the Japanese tradition of contemplating and representing it that bound them together. It is a bond that lasts to this day and extends more generally between East and West. The Japanese in return embraced him, and he has now become one of the most celebrated Western artists in Japan.
Whilst the Meiji era was a time of rapid change, over its four decades, the Japanese people retained and cultivated their traditional arts. After the opening of Japan’s ports in the 1850s to the West, trade with Europe and America began to flourish and Japanese goods flooded Western markets. This created an early enthusiasm for all things Japanese, which created ripples throughout the artistic world and can be observed in Western paintings as early as the 1860’s, which will be discussed later. With the restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868, funding for the arts surged as the new government promoted Japan at international exhibitions such as the ones held in Vienna in 1873, Paris in 1889 and Chicago in 1893.
World fairs such as these drew in millions of visitors from around the globe, with records showing 27 million visitors for the Chicago exhibition. The Paris exhibition had over 32 million, colossal numbers even by today’s standards; especially considering the entire population of France at the time consisted of around 40 million! Encouraged by lavish government funding and imperial patronage, Meiji artists boldly experimented, refined their skills, and worked to create pieces that demonstrated the superiority of their style and technique. In doing so, they constantly pursued (and claimed) new levels of perfection.
This, however, was only part of the reason for the late 19th century surge in creativity and innovation in Japan. After 1868, many artisans found that society had changed around them, and that the items they had previously made were no longer needed. For example, in 1876, the Meiji government abolished the right of Japan’s two million Samurai to wear swords. Metal-workers who specialised in making sword-fittings were obliged to conjure up new lines of business. Many survived by creating decorative metal ornaments for export or by producing Imperial commissions destined as diplomatic gifts and found imaginative ways to apply their skills and techniques to the new market.
This incense burner is a fine example. Created around 1890 by a former maker of sword-fittings, this magnificent elephant utilises the refined skills of the craftsman in many of its delicate details. The subject matter of the white elephant carrying a dragon which in turn carries a clear crystal ball that represents several significant motifs in Buddhism. The clear crystal on top represents the essence of Buddha’s teachings.
The inventiveness in both composition and execution did not stop at metalworking, however. In the field of enamel, Japanese artisans were making great strides at inventing and modifying traditional techniques to dazzling effects. To take a few examples, we can simply consider the techniques of shōsen, musen and moriage enamel, all developed by Japanese artists. These were creative additions to cloisonné enamelling, which has been in existence since ancient Greece but came to the peak of its perfection in nineteenth century Japan: more on this can be found in Gregory Irvine’s excellent essay in this catalogue.
In brief, cloisonné involved applying thin metal wires made of copper or silver onto the body of an object, usually made of copper or porcelain, and occasionally even silver or gold. These wires would then be used to construct images, which would be made up of cells or cloisons (from the French for partition or divider) which are then filled with glass paste or powder and fired, polished then re-fired and polished repeatedly until the final polish in order to achieve a highly refined finish. In fact, in Japan pieces could be fired over 40 times in some instances, far exceeding in the finishing of their European counterparts, where pieces would be fired only a few times, once for each colour. The Japanese fired them many times over to create spectacular, intricate landscapes, brimming with many different shades of colour and unique optical effects.
The shōsen and musen techniques were developed by Namikawa Sōsuke, who was appointed Imperial Court Artist in 1896. These techniques depended on enamel types which resisted mixing with each other if the wires separating them were kept to a minimum or altogether absent. In the shōsen technique, these wires were indeed kept to a bare minimum, only used as delicate contours or to highlight small details, while in musen the wires were often completely removed before the pieces were fired in the last stage, particularly helpful in achieving a painterly effect. More often both techniques would be employed to contribute to the overall decoration on the object.
In the following example we can see a superb execution of shōsen, where the details have been elegantly picked out by the wire. This detail is from a pair of vases attributed to Namikawa Sōsuke which were exhibited at the Amsterdam International Exhibition of 1883 by the Nagoya Cloisonné Company. The wonderful effect of gradual colour changes in the enamel was something Sōsuke claimed to have invented in 1879. As with Van Gogh and other artists who will be discussed later, the influence of such bold masterpieces could be seen clearly in the European art that followed, including Sonnenblumen, an incredible 1908 painting by Egon Schiele, shown in the opposite image.
As for musen, we can see here an excellent example, again by Sōsuke, of how this technique was applied.
The brush stroke and colour effects on the bird’s feathers and body are a true testament to Sōsuke’s ability to create masterful images that look as if they are painted, while simultaneously drawing attention to the technique by gently highlighting the use of the wire he has left in to delicately frame the beak and feet of the bird.
The third technique I’d like to highlight for its innovation, moriage, is known to have also been developed by two distinguished enamellers of the 19th century, Kawade Shibatarō and Hattori Tadasaburō. The Japanese term moriage means ‘piling up’ or ‘heaping’ and in this technique, which was very difficult to master due to the level of meticulous care needed, layers of enamel are sequentially applied so that the final effect is three dimensional.
In this vase by Shibatarō, moriage has been utilized with great success and originality.
By applying the technique to the stems, flowers and buds against the deep blue background, showing them in relief, Shibatarō had been able to produce an incredible vibrancy to the branches of the plum tree which look as though they are pulsating with life. The bold choice of colour gives further depth to the image and creates a powerful impression. We can see how such imagery inspired Van Gogh, in the famous painting Blossoming Chestnut Branches (1890).
The technical and aesthetic innovations of Japanese artisans had a very strong effect on artists in the West. At the later stages of the 19th century there was even a style of painting popular among certain post-impressionists called Cloisonnism, a term which directly references the cloisonné technique. Cloisonnism describes a style of painting where large areas of colour and flat forms were sectioned off with strong contours as in the enamelling technique. It was a style practiced by artists as renowned as Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin and of course, Van Gogh. They all shared a deep desire to broaden the scope of painting; and the methods introduced to them by Japanese artists inspired them to take more creative risks in their own works.
The affinity between these great contemporaries is shown quite charmingly in the below cloissonist painting by Bernard, a self-portrait, which includes an image of Gauguin, and is dedicated to Van Gogh.
Over the course of four decades, Japanese art became an international sensation. The Japonisme craze reached its zenith in the 1870s and 1880s, with European and American art-lovers paying huge sums for the finest Meiji ceramics, enamels, bronzes, lacquer and other creations. Japanese artists responded ingeniously to the Western penchant for the most demanding technical feats and for unfamiliar subjects such as dragons, semi-legendary historical heroes and mythical characters. They took heed of this growing interest and increasingly focused on the export market, seizing the opportunity to prove that nothing else created at that time could match their own brilliance.
European artists were between themselves competing for the best pieces to be included in their home and in their paintings. Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti, for example, in a letter from 1864 illustrates this quite well, complaining on how all the best kimono in the shop had disappeared. He wrote to his mother telling her:
“…all the costumes were being snapped up by a French artist, Tissot, who it seems is doing three Japanese pictures, which the mistress of the shop described to me as the three wonders of the world, evidently in her opinion throwing Whistler into the shade”.
Whistler wrote to the Parisian artist Henri Fantin-Latour the following year asking him to go to the shop and put all the costumes on one side for him.
The most fashionable drawing rooms across Europe and America featured Japanese objects to emphasise the cultural sensitivity and contemporary tastes of their owners. Here we can see the Japanese parlour at the William H. Vanderbilt New York house in 1882, with a profusion of objects of every kind, which also included an extraordinary mantelpiece.
In 1883, the art critic Earl Shinn who often wrote under the pseudonym Edward Strahan and was a well-known chronicler of the ‘Who’s Who’ in collecting in the 19th century US – commented on the mantel piece, writing
‘The hood of the mantel in this room resembles the doorway of a Japanese palace, with its flaring tent-shaped rooflet or pediment rising high above the fireplace. The lacquered pilasters supporting it are sheathed at their extremities with bronze sockets wrought into clusters of chrysanthemums; between them, overhead, spreads a frieze of Japanese cranes flying among the clouds, gilded and deeply undercut’.
And here, we can see the writer Emile Zola depicted by his friend Manet, book and quill at the ready, with a Japanese screen – not dissimilar to a panel from a screen in the Collection dated circa 1900, shown opposite and in the current exhibition – and a woodblock print decorating the room together with a reproduction of Manet’s controversial painting Olympia.
The combination of the Japanese objects, Zola’s presence, and Manet’s painting, speaks of sophistication and bravery, directly connecting the Japanese objects with the daring approach the two artists were employing at the time in their respective arts.
Many of the pieces in the Collection are excellent examples of the type of objects which inspired collectors and artists of the 19th century, including Van Gogh and many of his contemporaries. In terms of the usage of colour and motif alone, numerous examples can be found which explain the paired down and pensive approach seen in paintings such as Almond Blossom and Whistler’s Nocturnes. It wasn’t necessarily the featuring of Japanese costume and objects in the painting themselves – which is indeed often the case – but rather the aesthetic which seeped into the consciousness of the artists involved and inspired their compositions.
The origin of this unique Japanese aesthetic has a long and complex history, which is explored in this exhibition and could fill the pages of many tomes. It spans many different cultural practices, from flower arranging through gastronomy, the tea-ceremony, calligraphy and theatre, and is tied up with the Japanese notions of beauty, taste and harmony, which in turn function as a type of philosophy embedded in everyday life. Shinto and Buddhist philosophies have naturally had a heavy influence on these concepts, given that they are centred on a strong connection between the spiritual and the visual.
The art of creating lacquer pieces, for example, speaks volumes with regards to the patience and delicacy required in preparing and making them. These are labour intensive artworks, often painstakingly created in minute detail one millimetre at a time, with close attention being given to timing, temperature, as well as the sourcing of particular ingredients and applying them as required. A lacquer master had to be patient, observant, calm (timing was everything), and with a particular knowledge of the many natural materials used to hone their craft. These pieces too, of course, served as an immense source of inspiration many Western masters, including Van Gogh. In fact, the latter once commented:
‘If we study Japanese art, we discover a man who is undeniably wise, philosophical and intelligent, who spends his time – doing what? Studying the distance from the earth and the moon? No! Studying the politics of Bismarck? No! He studies … a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants – then the seasons, the grand spectacle of landscapes, finally animals, then the human figure. That is how he spends his life, and life is too short to do everything.’
Van Gogh was all too aware of the need to focus, to expand and minimise the energies of painting and, above all, to acquire the art of patience and the science of detail.
In the wondrous example overleaf we can see a phenomenal tray by Shibata Zeshin, considered by the Japanese as “the Da Vinci of Japan” and widely regarded as the greatest ever master of Japanese lacquer. In a paired down and quiet composition, a single long eared hare in shown above delicately applied waves. Some argue that in order to achieve this wave pattern, known as seigaiha-nuri (‘blue-sea-waves lacquering’) he used a fine comb pulled through a thin layer of wet lacquer mixed with cereal starch to improve its viscosity. This was an extraordinary feat, demanding extreme care and precision to execute the design in a short space of time before the lacquer dried and mistakes could not be corrected; you had just one shot at perfection.
In comparison, below the tray is an 1887 work by Van Gogh which depicts a bird flying through a field blowing in the breeze. The composition and the sense of serenity is remarkably similar to that of Zeshin, as is the adherence to the powerful aesthetic of a single, isolated animal shown alongside nature in all its overwhelming gentleness.
The lacquer box below, one of the hidden gems of our Collection, also displays a magnificent design with an influence to be clearly seen in pieces by Van Gogh and others. The unsigned piece delicately depicts the flowering branches of a tree growing atop a rocky outcrop. Compared with Van Gogh’s Sprig of Flowering Almond in a Glass (1888), the strength of the branch and delicacy of the flower colliding against the hard materials speaks with the same language of contrast and love of nature seen in many Japanese pieces.
It is important to note of course that there is no one Japanese style and that Japanese art as a whole can be as varied and complex as European art. We can be certain, however, that Japanese artists and artisans understood what it was that attracted the west to their art, and were very canny at marketing the styles and subjects which held the most appeal.
For example, here we have a bronze group display by Ōtake Norikuni which was clearly made to make an impact.
The group shows Susano-o no Mikoto, a fabled warrior and deity, receiving a sacred jewel from a sea god and the whole object is adorned with aquatic decorations: fish scales, fins, and fish tails, and with an attendant by his side. The dramatic scene, so full of detail and momentum was in all likelihood made for display at a major exposition, and indeed a similar group, signed Ōshima Jōun, was displayed at the second Japanese National Industrial Exposition of 1881.
One could argue that these pieces of such breath-taking scale, power and muscularity showcasing the strength and powerful spirit of the artist, can be as exhilarating as the smallest inrō with sublime decorations that are easy to get lost in. In our Collection we also have a pair of magnificent metalwork samurai, which is a perfect example of both.
The sheer scale of these works, together with the nature of their composition, project at once a sense of power and elegance. And yet when examined closely, each part of the uniform, faces, and naginata (a pole weapon used by the samurai) is meticulously decorated in its own right.
The rich patterns on the samurai clothing is an echo of probably one of the most ornate and delicate art in the world – the art of textiles. The textile industry during the Meiji era was an equally thriving and vibrant scene where – just like with the other crafts we have seen – produced masterpieces of varying scales and sizes.
Our Collection features hundreds of examples of wall hangings, embroidered scrolls, decorative panels, and banners, aside from our Kimono Collection which will be discussed later. In Meiji: treasures de Japon imperial some of our textiles are shown for the first time, and the thought of finally showcasing these masterpieces in their full glory fills me with joy.
In the opposite piece, very fine silk threads were woven to create a shimmering background, clouds, trees and water, while the black and red velvet was cut with extremely intricate scalpel to create the magnificent image of a view of Mount Fuji in all its glory. It is a technique which I came across only recently, and yet again dazzled me with the ingenuity of the Japanese artisans. Seeing this kind of subdued yet powerful scene executed in textile naturally generated an incredible response in Europe, from artist and audiences alike. A testament to this could be seen, for example, in the many incredible works of Henri Rivière, who was much inspired and captivated by Japanese art in all its forms. Two superb lithographs, one which featured in the score of The Prodigal Child by Georges Fragerolle, premiered in the Chat noir in 1894; the other, Moonlight at Landmélus captures a stillness and mystery which resonates heavily with Japanese art in general and in this large textile in particular. With such scale and aesthetic impact, it could easily be forgotten that this was a textile. We are immediately drawn in, compelled to immerse ourselves in the scene as if the sea and mountains were right there before us.
The same could be also said for another masterpiece in the Collection, which depicts a waterfall so full of life and movement it is impossible to imagine this was created by humans using humble threads.
Some, such as the very rare kesi (a technique usually reserved for Chinese silk tapestries, renowned for its lightness and clarity) woven panel shown opposite are such a simple celebration of form and colour, one could think they were pieces of contemporary art. And as usual, Van Gogh being ahead of his time recognised and shared this sensibility, as can be seen in his Flower Beds in Holland (1883).
Incidentally, creating pieces such as the Kesi panel was indeed a way for the Japanese to look both inwardly and outwardly, revising and challenging their own aesthetic traditions such as rinpa, a subject which is covered at length by this magnificent exhibition and publication.
In another part of the collection, focusing on Satsuma earthenware vases (very distinctive pottery originating in the Satsuma province, known for its delicate gilded glaze), yet another long standing aspect of Japanese art can be seen, which might have filtered through to Western artists through woodblock prints and objects they had seen in shops, galleries or expositions.
In this charming earthenware piece from 1910 by Yabu Meizan, a procession of insects, lizards and frogs is joyfully taking place. While this tradition of caricaturing various human activities has a long history in Japan – the most famous being a 12th-13th century set of picture scrolls known in the English-speaking world as Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, a page of which is shown in the opposite image – the detailed and quite endearing depiction of the creatures could also be seen as a meditation on nature; the part we play in it as well as its role in our lives.
With this reflective quality in mind, such lifelike and whimsical depictions of insects, along with the subtle humour of these depictions seemed to have been yet another source of inspiration to Western painters of the period. In a painting simply titled Roses (1890) by Van Gogh, we find a charming little beetle, which feels almost as if it belongs in the parade on the vase!
Furthermore, such a perceptive interpretation of nature indeed played another crucial part in the appeal of Japonisme in the West. The confusion created by the approaching end of the century, together with the speeding technological advances sweeping the world, brought about in some minds a romantic yearning for a simpler world, reconnected with nature. Japanese art was able to cater both to this yearning, which in itself seemed avant-garde and a break from the norm, and to the need for innovation and change, which played on the minds of 19th century artists and bohemians simultaneously. And thus the modern art movement was a kind of Janus, looking both backwards to ancient traditions and philosophy and to the future, in search of new means of expression.
The craze for Japanese art and aesthetics that swept the West at the time was not limited solely to the collection of art objects, but also had an effect on fashion, as illustrated in this portrait of actress Lillie Langtry from 1884.
Earlier on, we learned just how sought after Kimono were by Whistler, Tissot, and Rossetti. Whether as a source of inspiration for painting or as a fashion statement, Kimono formed a very essential part of the Japonisme craze. It should be of little surprise, therefore, that aside from collecting Japanese Meiji artworks, I also recently brought into the fold a new and exciting collection which surveys the history of this iconic garment.
In 2015, Thames & Hudson published Kimono: the art and evolution of Japanese Fashion edited by Anna Jackson, Keeper of the Asian department at the V&A, and with contributions by leading international experts in the field such as Iwao Nagasaki, Professor of Apparel Science at the Kyoritsu Women’s University in Tokyo. This publication explored the history of these wonderful garments and the central role they play in Japanese culture. It showcased the delicate patterns and designs that have since inspired artists around the world. Together with our incredible resource of kimono, which was described by Anna Jackson as the largest collection of kimono outside of Japan, our two Japanese collections now hold almost 2,000 phenomenal works of art.
Many paintings of the period by Western artists portray women wearing kimono, such as these works by Whistler, Monet, Breitner and Derain. Geographically and culturally transformed, in these works the kimono has become part of a space where it evokes the novelty and exoticism of Japan. Interestingly, as the 19th century West was becoming preoccupied with the exoticism of the Kimono, in Japan the trend was reversed, and western clothing was adopted by the social elite as a symbol of Japan’s drive for modernity.
In late 19th century Europe and America, the kimono signified something artistic, fashionable, exotic and, at times, non-conformist. In the aesthetic interior it could denote a woman’s social confinement, while hinting at the supposed eroticism of the East. Kimono could be bought in shops such as Liberty’s, but the actual wearing of them was limited to the artistic and social elite – it was a bohemian garment that would only be worn indoors. Wearing the loose fitting and mysterious kimono was an exciting, personal statement on the female body.
In the painting shown here by Whistler, presented at the Paris Salon of 1865 and inspired by Japanese prints and objects, the depiction of the model in the kimono creates an ethereal and yet quite powerful presence. Getting the right objects in the painting was crucial, and more often than not, the objects inspired the whole composition. Artists spent hours studying and choosing Japanese objects for their work. Screens in our Collection, such as the one shown in the opposite image, would have provided incredible inspiration to the artists working and living with, as well as painting these objects. One can almost see how the flowing shapes of the peacock are mirrored in the gown, which in turn works incredibly well with the screen and the fan.
The placing of an evidently European model within such a Japanese context, both in terms of costume and the interior, creates a dramatic sense of individuality and freedom from the constraints of the period.
But the kimono was not only part of the predominantly male vision of Japan. It was in some ways also liberating for women, as it offered a new form of dress that allowed for freedom of movement unrestricted by tight corsets. As such, its influence is seen in Western fashion in the late 19th and particularly early 20th century.
Of course, the perception of kimono in the West also derives from a fascination with Japanese theatre and courtesans, which formed a large portion of the subject matter of prints available to Western audiences. In this painting by Van Gogh, we can see quite a few different Japanese influences coming together.
The actress wearing this rather elaborate kimono is copied from the cover of the Paris Illustré shown beside it, and the frog was copied from a woodblock print shown at the right – although it could have easily been inspired by the ‘bug vase’ mentioned earlier.
Theatre undoubtedly played a major role in influencing and reflecting fashion trends, and certainly as in Japan, in Europe actresses tended to be at the forefront of the latest fashion crazes. Sarah Bernhard, possibly the most influential actress of the 19th century, was reported to have owned a kimono and gowns inspired by kimono, and in a painting by her friend Louise Abbéma we can see her portrayed in a Japanese garden wearing a beautiful blue kimono and obi, the sash that goes on the front of the garment.
As Rebecca Stevens and Yoshiko Wada put it in their publication The Kimono Inspiration, ‘adventurous women were keen to imitate Bernhardt. That connection between the daring sophisticate and the kimono, so prevalent in Bernhardt’s days, still persists’
I have been working tirelessly for nearly five decades to promote and introduce the world to the master craftsmen of the Meiji period. In Japan my efforts were finally recognised when, in late 2011, the National Japanese TV network (NHK) filmed a three-hour documentary entitled The Secret of the World’s Finest Art: Hidden Masterpieces of Meiji Crafts from the Khalili Collections. I am told that home audiences for the series of films, which were broadcast multiple times, were enormous, and generated such huge interest that the arts of the Meiji era are back in vogue! Several exhibitions of Meiji art in recent years in Japan and elsewhere had drawn very large numbers of visitors, and interest amongst the younger generation seems to be on the rise too.
Bringing this great art to the world’s attention, from back when interest seemed to have been virtually non-existent is one of my most proud accomplishments. It also pleases me immensely that museums and new collectors are now picking up the baton and showing an interest in this remarkable period of Japanese art. Continuing to be at the forefront of this appreciation is something I hold very dear to my heart.
In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh commented:
‘I envy the Japanese the extreme clearness which everything has in their work. It is never tedious, and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat’
This could certainly be said of many of the pieces in this remarkable exhibition. France and Japan had always had this passionate relationship which has produced some of the most incredible works of art known to mankind, and the mutual inspiration kept both countries growing and developing as giants at the forefront of art. When going through Meiji: treasures de Japon imperial, it is crucial that we recognise how much the Japanese had contributed to European aesthetic as we know it.
By bringing attention to the art of this remarkable period in Japan, I am honoured to be recognised as someone that has used all the resources at his disposal to raise awareness of such marvels and has inspired wonder and joy to those who see the pieces displayed in exhibitions around the world and reproduced in books and articles.
When I had my exhibition of Japanese art of the Meiji era at the British Museum Japanese Imperial Craftsmen: Meiji art from the Khalili Collection, I was asked by a friend to give him a personal tour of the exhibition on the last day. We made our way up to the gallery, which we found crowded with visitors admiring the many pieces of metalwork, lacquer and enamel on display. At one point we stood for five minutes in a queue waiting to look at my favourite group of pieces, a set of screens with mythological subjects. Eventually we got to the front, and I began explaining to my friend the history of the object, and why I particularly liked it.
I felt someone tugging at my jacket, and I glanced round. There was no-one there. So I turned back and carried on talking. Again there was a tug at my jacket. This time I looked round properly. A little girl who didn’t seem more than ten years old was standing behind me. I asked her what I could do for her. She replied, “Can you move out of the way so I can read the label?”
It is reactions like these that make it all worthwhile!
So as we bring this fascinating journey to a close, it would be important to note how crucial it is that such an exhibition is happening in Paris, where Meiji art was first introduced to the world and inspired Van Gogh and his contemporaries. I hope this exhibition will open the eyes of the world to seeing the vital connection between the arts of France and Japan. I trust that by showcasing to the public the mastery of Meiji artisans – seen in Paris all those years ago – we will be able to appreciate why it had taken Europe by such a storm. In doing so, perhaps we can together re-live Van Gogh’s memories as he gazed upon the masterpieces that inspired him. Or, one would hope, it might even challenge our own notions of perfection. In the very words of the Master: ‘after a while, one’s sight changes: you see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel colour differently’.
Professor Nasser D. Khalili, PhD KSS KCSS
Founder, The Khalili Collections
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador