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Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement: The Arts of the Meiji Period

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japantimes

There is an art to art collecting that involves quite different skills from those employed by artists. People tend to assume it’s all about rich people spending money, but, if that was all that was involved, collecting wouldn’t have half the attraction it does for those obsessed by it.

Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement: The Arts of the Meiji Period, Gregory Irvine (Editor), THAMES & HUDSON

Collecting involves much more than mere money, as demonstrated by the story of Dr. David Khalili, part of whose collection has been given a kind of joint academic-treatise/coffee-table-book treatment with the publication of “Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement: The Arts of the Meiji Period.”

The book is large and lavishly illustrated, and has the kind of high quality illustrations that may entice you to simply leave it open on a table as an interior decoration accent. But mixed in with the aesthetic appeal are several detailed, but not overlong, academic essays.

This mixture of academic and visual appeal was presumably influenced by Khalili, even though the book is edited and written by others. It definitely shows his combination of love and interest in what he collects with a subtle sense of showmanship and spin.

The key to any successful collection is a combination of attractiveness and intellectual respectability, in other words beauty and brains. This book seems designed to bolster both, even though this may raise the possibility of it falling between two stools. Whether it succeeds or not, it is at least evidence of Khalili’s adroitness — he’s not just some billionaire who wandered into collecting out of sheer boredom.

Born in 1945, Khalili is an Iranian Jew who moved to the United States after his military service, and worked flipping burgers and doing other low-paid jobs before breaking into the world of antiques trading. This was something that his family background had prepared him for. His father had been a dealer in Islamic antiques back in Iran. From small beginnings Khalili built up a collection, now based in London, estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

In a 2009 interview with the Sunday Times Khalili recalled his early days as a trader in New York City and how he exploited his skills as a middleman:

“Those days, because of the rivalry, the shops didn’t even talk to each other. There were 20 antique shops and they didn’t even look at what each of them had. I would buy five pieces for $10,000, sell three for $25,000, and keep the others for myself.”

One of the rules of successful collecting is to build up a collection with an identity by focusing on a specific area and era. Khalili’s collection has several distinct identities. In addition to Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japanese art, he also collects enamels, Swedish textiles, Spanish damascened metalwork and, biggest of all, Islamic art.

Another rule is to find an area that is not as well appreciated as it will be, and by buying and publicizing it, to make it so. This book must be seen in these terms.

It follows the grand narrative of Japanese art and crafts deeply influencing 19th-century European taste, a narrative familiar to anyone who has ever visited an exhibition of Impressionist or Post-Impressionist art in Japan. But, reflecting the weight of Khalili’s collection, emphasis is shifted from the graphic arts of painting and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) to the craft arts — ceramics, bronzes, lacquer and cloisonné.

The seven essays are by a range of academic worthies. The editor, Gregory Irvine is a senior curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He provides two of the essays as well as an introduction. Other writers include Axel Ruger, director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Hiroko Yokomizo, an associate professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and John House, former emeritus professor of London’s Courtauld Institute, who unfortunately passed away during the preparation of the book.

As you would expect from these highly qualified people, the writing is not particularly inspired or ambitious, though it is detailed and, in places, interesting enough. The writers all seem to stay close to their areas of academic speciality.

The most interesting points to emerge from the essays are, first, the part played by the system of international exhibitions — starting with the Vienna World Exhibition of 1873 and ending with the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London — and, second, the close quality control exerted by the Japanese government through bodies such as the Hakurankai Jimukyoku (Exhibition Bureau).

Sometimes those efforts by the authorities of the day read like a much more effective and rigorous 19th-century version of the present day “Cool Japan” campaign, an attempt to brand the newly-opening nation in a way that would benefit it economically, namely as a provider of unique, high-quality traditional crafts in order to win the foreign currency needed for its own modernization.

While this narrative is interesting, the big questions about Japonisme — why it became as big as it did when it did — are not tackled by this book. It is interesting to note that in France and Austria, the two initial centres of the fad, Japonisme seems to have caught on following both countries’ military humiliation by a relentlessly modernizing and ascendant Germany. Did Japonisme therefore represent Europe’s attempt to seek refuge from its own modernity in the carefully presented myth of a serene and exquisite island state far, far away?