Recent years have witnessed Japan’s rediscovered interest in something the West received with wild enthusiasm in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Export crafts made for late 19th-century and early 20th-century European and American markets were part of the Meiji government’s promotion of industry. Participating officially in world fairs since the 1873 Vienna World Exposition, Japan’s craft sectors, from ceramics through embroidery, lacquer, metalwork and others, were tremendously popular, award-winning and commanded stiff prices.
The 2014 nationwide touring exhibition “Kogei: Superlative Craftsmanship from Meiji Japan” rekindled local interest. “Amazing Craftsmanship! From Meiji Kogei to Contemporary Art,” which has been touring the country since late 2017, is now at the Abeno Harukas Art Museum in Osaka and seeks to capitalize on past successes.
Superlative technical skill aiding trompe l’oeil realism is the exhibition’s forte. Meiji Era woodcarving was frequently undertaken by artisans who produced Buddhist sculpture but who were forced to adapt their livelihoods to accommodate the period’s anti-Buddhist sentiments. Takamura Koun (1852-1934) continued to make wooden Buddhist images like “Hotei” (the god of contentment and happiness), but invested his traditional sculptural techniques with Western realism, leading to his selection as one of the first Imperial Household Artists in 1890.
Ivory carvings became popular export items from around 1877. The present-day fascination with Rokuzan Ando (c. 1885-1955), who was once nearly forgotten, is indicated by a dozen works on show. His life-sized ivory sculptures of dried figs, pineapples and mice nibbling codfish are superrealist novelties. Ando distinguished himself from his contemporaries by realistically coloring his sculptures in contrast to their emphasis on unadorned ivory.
Also on display are examples of jizai okimono (articulated ornaments), an art form conceived by armorers of the Edo Period (1603-1868) Myochin school. These statuettes have movable body parts enabled by metal plates joined by hinges and rivets. Both fictional and factual creatures were recreated, such as coiling dragons or Kozan Takase’s “Flying Crane Incense Burner” (Meiji Era). Chikurinsai Akiyama (1889-1937) is known to have made a wooden dragon jizai, and Nankai Yamazaki (dates unknown) also made jizai from ivory.
Using this showing of Meiji crafts as an opportunity to add value to Japan’s weak contemporary art market, the exhibition also presents pieces of comparable workmanship and obsessional attention to detail by 15 artists in their 20s to 70s.
Quite stunning examples include; Kengo Takahashi’s aluminum cow skull studded with a wreath of flowers for “flower funeral: cattle” (2017); Masaya Hashimoto’s “Chrysanthemum” (2014) carved from deer antler; Tomizo Saratani’s lacquer with gold shell “Phoenix” (2008); Yukihiko Haruta’s life-sized cloisonne, silver and copper snakeskin handbag, “Rebellion” (2017); Eriko Inazaki’s exquisite crystalline structures made of porcelain and glass like “Arcadia” (2016); and Ryohei Usui’s seemingly water-filled bags and plastic bottles made of glass.
Many of the Meiji Era craftspeople featured in the exhibition were buoyed by the genealogical and cultural authorities of their craft traditions, had their careers nurtured by government and industry and were publicly honored with titles like Imperial Household Artist. Most, however, are entirely unknown today.
The juxtaposition of Meiji Era works with contemporary artists raises the unnerving prospect of who among these present-day figures will linger long in public memory.
“Amazing Craftsmanship! From Meiji Kogei to Contemporary Art” at Abeno Harukas Art Museum in Osaka runs until April 14. ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.aham.jp.