The catalog for The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto’s exhibition, “Treasures of the Imperial Collection: The Quintessence of Modern Japanese Art,” tells us that this “sublime collection of resplendent masterpieces shines brilliantly in the history of modern Japanese art.” The collection, represented here by 180 paintings and crafts culled from the 9,500 objects gifted to the government in 1989 on the passing of the Showa Emperor, is spectacular.

It is problematic to say, however, that this really has much place in the history of Japanese art. While nearly everything was produced by revered artists, much has never been publicly displayed and so this private collection largely stands outside art history because so few have been able to acknowledge it. This apparent obscurity did not merely surround the art. A large section of the Japanese citizenry were not even particularly aware of the Emperor’s existence until the first 1915 public enthronement, and much of the art dates to before this.

Also, while the individual works are termed “masterpieces,” the bureaucracy surrounding the collection stops them from achieving such status. Imperial artworks are exempt from the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, so pieces cannot be designated national treasures or important cultural properties. Given this, the exhibition is really concerned with the patronage of entirely conservative arts.

As Japan rapidly, though only superficially, Westernized, following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a commonly told story is that traditional painters and artisans lost the patronage of the elite that they had enjoyed in the past. Stepping in to prevent this vacuum was the Imperial Household that from 1877-1903 patronized the five National Industrial Exhibitions promoting Japanese industry and international exposure. Subsequently, artists were commissioned to decorate the interior of the new Meiji Palace in Tokyo, which was completed in 1888 and destroyed in 1945. The first section of the exhibition recreates, in part, the interior of the palace.

The Imperial household set up a further system of celebrated arts patronage by appointing Teishitsu Gigeiin (Imperial Household Artists), beginning in 1890. To receive such an honor, it was requisite for the artist to work in relation to Japanese tradition and to be conservative, which usually also meant old. Among the first Teishitsu Gigeiin were painter and lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin, who was in his 80s, and sculptor Koun Takamura, an exception who was still to turn 40.

Predominately late-style oeuvres by artists with established reputations, therefore, were paramount, and the type of neo-traditional art produced found a welcome reception overseas just as it did at “home.” The Teishitsu Gigeiin, for example, were ordered to create works for the 1900 Paris World Exposition with their brief being to make furnishings for decorating the Imperial Palace or create gifts for foreign dignitaries. Designs were scrutinized and subject to alteration. Shinshichi Iida IV created a velvet yuzen-dyed tapestry titled “Plovers in a Moonlit Night.” It won a gold medal at the Parisian Exposition and was later purchased by the actress, Sarah Bernhardt.

In 1907 the Bunten, national juried arts exhibitions based on the 19th-century French Salon model, was established, and works destined for the Imperial Collections were acquired from here. This Imperial patronage was a model for the active support of an art market and it is notable that one feature of the early Bunten was that prices were attached to exhibited works, the aim being to encourage the wider public to purchase pieces and get into the habit of acquiring art. This however, proved difficult. And even now, the Japanese contemporary art market still languishes behind those of other developed countries.

An alternative purchasing market for the Imperial Household was the Japan Art Institute, established by Okakura Tenshin in 1898. The Imperial connection remains close to this institute, due in large part to the group’s precursor being the traditionally focused Ryuchikai art appreciation society, which was established in 1887 and given stimulus by the American scholar Ernest Fenollosa. Prince Arisugawa Taruhito served as Ryuchikai’s governor and so the familial connection, traditionally extremely important, was entrenched.

There are no avant-garde works here and so it is incorrect to say, as the catalog does, “that the Imperial Family played a very big role in the development of modern Japanese art.”

They patronized the mainstream (the history of Japanese modern art being the antithesis of the mainstream), technical precision tied to mild traditional innovations, and inoffensive art on par with state expectations of decorum and diplomacy. All here is sumptuous, though mostly divorced from serious high modernism’s rejection of skill, art-as-decoration and tradition.

“Treasures of the Imperial Collections: The Quintessence of Modern Japanese Art” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till Jan. 13; open 9:30 a.m-5 p.m. ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp

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