Bringing Japan to Britain

by Victoria James

When she looked at the floor plans for Oxford’s redesigned Ashmolean Museum and saw that her two Japanese galleries formed an L-shape in one corner of the building, curator Clare Pollard didn’t see an awkward space. “I saw a tea-house,” she explains. And there it sits, in the crook of two beautiful and meticulous displays: designed by Tokyo-based architect Isao Komoda, made by master craftsman Amakusa Eiichiro, a two-mat piece of Japan at the heart of this major new museum space.

The Ashmolean Museum was Britain’s first museum, originating in the private collection of two 17th-century plant collectors, a father and son both named John Tradescant who assembled a “cabinet of curiosities” during their far-flung travels in search of botanical specimens. That earliest assemblage included a humble pair of zori sandals — a far cry from the sort of Japanese objects that would later join the collection: swords and their fittings, screens, netsuke, and one of the finest collections of Japanese export porcelain gathered anywhere in the world.

Visitors to the original Tradescant collection observed that it was like going round the world in a day, a journey between cultures. After the collection was rehoused as part of Oxford University, however, it gradually fell victim to the scholarly impetus to categorize and compartmentalize, and strict geographical and chronological divisions were imposed on the objects on show.

Now, though, following the £61 million refit of the Ashmolean, which sees its interior transformed into a stunningly airy and light-filled space, the presentation of objects has been harmonized under the theme of “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time.” It is an approach that pays particularly rich dividends in the Japanese displays.

“Here we have Japanese art for the West,” says Pollard, gesturing to a wall filled with tiered shelves of bright porcelain objects and tableware, “and we’ve displayed these as they might have been shown at the time, maybe in a stately home or Augustus the Strong’s dream of a “Porcelain Palace.” ‘ The opposite wall is a long, gleaming case containing two golden pairs of folding screens painted with a riot of carefully depicted flowers. “Here,” Pollard adds, “we have Japanese art for Japan.”

Except, as the rest of this cleverly constructed space makes clear, it isn’t always as simple as that. One high shelf holds three plates: one a red-and-gold Chinese piece, two Japanese. The design on all three is remarkably similar — two young women in a pastoral setting. The original design was actually the work of a Dutch trader with the East India Company, who had a good eye for what would sell back home.

He commissioned workshops in both Japan and China to manufacture the plates. The Chinese craftsmen ran it off exactly as requested; the Japanese artists, however, could not resist tampering with the design — the women are differently positioned, one turns her long neck in a gracefully elongated movement. The “mass-market” template has been turned into a distinctively Japanese creation.

This notion of cultural dialogue in the production of art objects is continued in the second gallery, which turns from the Edo Period (1603-1867) to the Meiji Era (1868-1912). “You won’t find much like this displayed in Japan,” explains Pollard, indicating a group of colorful Satsuma-ware vases and jars. “I call this case ‘gorgeous glitter and gold.’ It was what the West really fell in love with.”

The Satsuma-ware owed its overseas popularity to its appearance at the great cultural Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1867 — the first in which Japan had ever participated.

The Meiji Period officially began the following year in 1868. The powerbroking Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture) played a pivotal role in Japan’s “opening” to the West, not least because its daimyo controlled the Ryukyus, where many ships landed seeking trade. Consequently the region’s crafts were among the first known overseas.

The decades that followed saw some Japanese artists cater to the tastes of European buyers and others reject this influence and hearken back to more “traditional” forms. A few very talented individuals produced items of creative synthesis that seem to be both perfectly Japanese and at the same time perfect examples of international artistic trends.

One of these is perhaps the most exquisite item currently displayed at the Ashmolean, and one of Pollard’s personal favorites: a tall, blue cloisonne (enameled) vase, flared slightly at the bottom, that captures the force and grace of a waterfall, evoking both the fall of a Japanese scroll-painting and the aesthetics of Art Nouveau.

There is, of course, much more to the new Ashmolean than its Japanese galleries. It houses a breathtaking collection of Ancient Egyptian sculpture, Italian Renaissance paintings and sketches, and the Alfred Jewel, the treasure of Anglo-Saxon Britain. But these evocative Japanese displays — which rotate regularly, so there is always something new to see — go to the heart of what the new Ashmolean Museum, and new approaches to museum presentation in general, are all about. And from Spring 2010, when regular tea-ceremonies begin, visitors will even be able to toast the museum’s achievement with a raised bowl of matcha.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, is open Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (and Bank Holiday Mon.). Admission is free. For more information, visit www.ashmolean.org