The focus of “The 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Period: Making and Designing Meiji Arts and Crafts” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, concerns the relationship between nihonga (Japanese-style) painters of Kyoto and craft production during a time when craft and design were part of the government’s national strategy for the pursuit of economic benefits. The exhibition also touches on the late 19th century’s national and international expositions, craft masterpieces of the time, and innovations introduced by the German chemist, Gottfried Wagener (1831-1892). It was Wagener’s underglaze painting techniques that achieved the gradation effects of traditional painting on Asahi ware ceramics, such as that of the displayed “Tiles with Grapes Design in Underglaze” (1890-1896).

When Kishi Chikudo (1826-1897) was commissioned to provide designs for stencil-dyed yūzen fabrics, this initiated the beginning of modern nihonga’s relationship with Kyoto’s textile industries. He provided a lavish peony, lotus and plum blossom design for crepe silk production in 1874, on display today. From early on, the painters Kishi, Kono Bairei and Imao Keinen were prominent in producing new designs for Meiji Era (1868-1912) crafts, though they drew upon Edo Period (1603-1868) decorative traditions, painting subjects of birds, flowers and marine life. Such themes became integral to establishing Japan’s international artistic reputation after the country’s first formal participation in world fairs, the 1873 Vienna International Exposition.

Painting designs and sketches for use by artisans in works primarily created for export were published in the form of a portfolio titled “Onchizuroku” (1881). This widely consulted source provided at least general directions, if not complete artistic programs, for Ishii Yusuke II’s “Shelf with Design of Auspicious Symbols in Yusuke-style Lacquer” (c. 1881), and Kawamoto Masukichi I’s “Facet-cut Vase with Underglaze Enamels” (1881).

This was art for craft’s sake, and it led in part to the opening of the Kyoto Prefectural School of Painting (present-day Kyoto City University of Arts) in 1880. This was Japan’s first public art school, and it was also tasked with promoting and reinvigorating local craft industries. Instruction in painting was conceived of as a foundation that had flow-on effects for rejuvenating design in textiles, ceramics, metal ware and architecture. An example of collaboration was Iida Shinshichi IV’s silk embroidery that perfectly reproduced the ink scroll painting “Hawk in the Snow” (c. 1893) by Takeuchi Seiho.

One stream of Meiji art that informed craft production was characterized by a myopic realist impulse that, while having Edo Period roots, developed in tandem with the introduction of Western oil painting and the adoption of conventions such as perspective and chiaroscuro. In extreme cases, these kinds of arts and crafts were considered mechanical for their precise reproductions of nature. Meiji Era craft-sculpture were picture-perfect and life-sized, replicating seashore shells, snakes and other creatures, including articulated spiny lobsters (c. 1868-1926) by Nankai Yamazaki, and the later “Figurines of Oranges” (c. 1912-1989) by Rokuzan Ando, both made carved from ivory.

Some artists of the time, however, were not captivated by crafts, cultivating lofty, higher art aspirations. “If you want a yuzen textile underdrawing, go to Imao Keinen,” artist Suzuki Shonen (1848-1918 ) once said. “If you want a scroll painting, I’ll paint you one.”

“The 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Period: Making and Designing Meiji Arts and Crafts” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs until May 20; ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.

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