Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2016
William S. Rodner Edwardian London through Japanese Eyes: The Art and Writings of Yoshio Markino, 1897–1915 Leiden: Brill, 2012. 240 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $128.00 (9789004220393)
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In Edwardian London through Japanese Eyes: The Art and Writings of Yoshio Markino, 1897–1915, William S. Rodner presents the first scholarly monograph in English on Yoshio Makino (or “Markino,” as the artist romanized the spelling of his family name). There have been a few publications and exhibitions in Japan on this once popular illustrator in early twentieth-century London, but it is in Rodner’s book that one finds a detailed and engaging account of Markino’s most productive years in London that culminated in his popular illustrated books such as The Colour of London (1907) and A Japanese Artist in London (1910). Arriving in London in 1897 at the age of twenty-eight, the artist mainly lived there until 1942, when he repatriated to Japan due to the war. He remained and died in Japan in 1956. Markino also lived and worked in the United States, and in his later years attempted an artistic and literary career in Japan. But it is for his pictorial homage to fog-filled, nocturnal London and its fashionable female inhabitants that Markino is best remembered. It is thus rightfully to these subjects that Rodner gives his main attention in this book, which will be an indispensable read for anyone interested in Markino’s London career.

As stated in the study’s conclusion, Rodner demonstrates how “Markino used a significant body of art and writing to expose the attractions as well as the contradictions of the complex Britain-Japan relationship” in the early twentieth century (177). On the one hand, Edwardian Britain acknowledged the new, modern Japan, beyond the exoticizing fascination with old, timeless Japan that boomed in the Victorian period. The concrete and active presence of “a Japanese artist in London,” who was perceived to embody the culture of a country that largely remained an aesthetic fiction in the work of James A. McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde, piqued the popular imagination. The fascination was mutual: for the Japanese residents of Edwardian London such as Markino, along with his better-known compatriot and close friend Yonejirō Noguchi (who makes a frequent appearance in the book), the imperial metropolis provided a platform upon which to construct and promote their own artistic and literary persona as modern cosmopolitan Japanese.

At the same time, the British racial and cultural condescension toward Japan and the Japanese set a tone for this alliance. Rodner describes how the British characterization of Markino’s work consistently used “such words as ‘innocence,’ ‘artlessness,’ ‘pathetic,’ ‘naive,’ and most often, that favorite word, ‘quaint’” (90). Admiration and condescension seem to have coexisted among the British sympathizers of Japan, and this is epitomized by Markino’s good friend and agent Douglas Sladen, whose “life-long love” of Japan (25) was expressed through his books bearing titles such as The Japs at Home (1892), Queer Things about Japan (1903), and More Queer Things about Japan (1904).

Edwardian London through Japanese Eyes presents a close and episode-filled description of Markino’s observations of London and its life through his letters, published writings, and illustrations. Rodner also enhances and buttresses his reconstructed narrative of Markino’s London experience by drawing upon many relevant passages by contemporary writers and friends of Markino. The book securely delivers what its title promises: an informed account of Edwardian London as seen through the illustrations and writings of Markino.

One of the larger themes that Rodner’s narrative considers is the changing attitude of Britain toward Japan. Chapter 1, “Japan in Britain,” discusses the increasing reputation of and knowledge about Japan in Edwardian England that conditioned Markino’s favorable reception. The establishment of the erudite Japan Society, for example, attests to the growing rift between the popular, middlebrow imagination of Japanese culture and the serious expert knowledge that discredited such reception to be frivolous and inauthentic. Chapter 3, “Between Two Stools,” builds upon this discussion of the evolving Britain-Japan relationship to situate the British reception of Markino. Rodner identifies an ambivalence at the heart of the London public’s interest in Markino. His works were at once familiar enough—recognizable through their fundamentally modern and Western style as either pictorial or textual vignettes, as well as exotically piquant through the mystique of their “Japanese” idiosyncrasies. If not overtly identified in relation to his illustrations, the “conscious foreignness” of Markino’s writing style was widely noted, was described at the time as “artfully artless neologisms and inversions” (89), and was considered “adorable.” Yet Rodner points out that this apparent praise worked to stunt Markino’s reputation merely as an “amusing” artist, while the public demanded a more serious literary style from Markino’s close friend Noguchi because he was not a “trivial” writer like Markino (90). The very close relationship between Markino and Noguchi at the time, which must have involved a complex relationship of collaboration as well as rivalry, is a subject that calls for a further study.

The other major thrust of the book is a lively account of the cultural and social history of Edwardian London as illustrated by Markino’s work. Chapter 2, “Heiji of London Fog,” presents a fascinating history of the fog and its much-discussed effect on London cityscapes that were Markino’s most beloved subjects. Markino’s cityscapes of London are taken up again in chapter 4, “A Mirror of Unknown Genre,” which closely discusses the 1907 illustrated book that made his reputation, The Colour of London. Rodner further examines the success of this book in chapter 6, “Making a Career.” He characterizes Markino’s signature approach to pictorializing London as an exploration of the city’s “atmosphere, people and those things which struck this outsider as representative of the west” (144). That this Japanese artist in London came to specialize in the visual poetry of London’s hazy and nocturnal ambience is perhaps not surprising given the similarly misty effects of the city captured in the work of Japan-inspired artists such as Whistler, or the contemporary photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn who studied under Arthur Wesley Dow, a student of Ernest Fenollosa. Rodney provides an insightful observation that Markino’s thematic choices were fundamentally different from someone like William John Loftie, the author who wrote the texts for The Colour of London that accompanied Markino’s illustrations. Unlike the foreign newcomer Markino, Loftie, who possessed a “long familiarity with London and its past,” gravitated toward “history, place names and the city’s most famous landmarks” (144).

Chapter 5 explores Markino’s sympathetic and flattering representations of contemporary women in London, whom the artist collectively named “My Idealed John Bullesses.” Rodney makes an especial mention of the artist’s supportive interest in rendering the activities of the suffragettes. The issue of Markino’s sexuality inevitably comes to the reader’s mind in this discussion, but it remains a subject for future study. On the one hand, Markino’s adoration of British women was described as “innocent,” “childlike,” and “happy,” and the book’s foreword by Hugh Cortazzi mentions the friendly divorce between the artist and his French wife, “the marriage not having apparently been consummated” (xii). On the other hand, Markino took the care to promote his ethnic- and class-conscious masculinity as a descendant of samurai. He was moreover infatuated with the physical appearance and behavior of London women from the posh West End to the immigrant East End, and described how British women’s “meat looks much harder” (131) when compared to Japanese women. He reputedly spent hours and days on the streets of London, voraciously looking and studying female fashion and gestures, delighting in capturing their more intimate moments such as fixing their hair or a garter.

In the concluding chapter 7, “The Chelsea Conservative,” Rodner relates the decline in Markino’s popularity in the years approaching and following World War I to the over-extended sojourn of the artist in London. “Sadly, the longer he lived in London the more difficult it was for him to project that cross-cultural balance for which he was famous” (175). According to Rodner, the novelty of the “Japanese” artist in London wore off, and Markino had become too much of a Londoner comfortable in his Chelsea residence. It seems to me, however, that a perhaps more plausible explanation for Markino’s diminishing popularity has to do with what Rodner suspects was the inability of the artist to transform his style in tune with the changing artistic as well as social environment of his adopted home.

Edwardian London through Japanese Eyes is essentially a study in British cultural history. For students of art history who also have a serious interest in Japan, the book will serve as a departure point for future inquiries into Markino’s career. Two issues in particular demand a more sustained critical analysis in understanding the historical popularity of Markino as an illustrator and representative phenomenon of “a Japanese artist in London.”

First, there is still a need for a more careful art-historical examination of the (ac)claimed “Japanese” quality of Markino’s images. Rodner lists the “Japanese” characteristics in Markino’s work as “the affinity for flat colors and wide expanses of tone . . . the avoidance of closely worked or broken surface textures” (150). What is yet to be evaluated is to what extent such “Japanese” qualities were the result of the artist’s self-conscious Japonisme, and less the natural or inevitable outcome of some innate Japanese sensibility that his Western critics have projected onto his art. By the early twentieth century, any artist working in major Western cities such as London or Paris could easily access and learn from the various artistic results of late nineteenth-century Japonisme. Advised to present himself as a “Japanese” artist in London, it is not difficult to imagine how Markino might have examined closely the work of artists such as Whistler and Claude Monet or the Japanese woodblock prints that these Western artists admired in seeking to extract what were considered in the West to be “Japanese” or “Japanizing” in such works. Markino received some formal art education in San Francisco and London, and based on the chronology listed at the end of the book, it does not seem that Markino received any notable training in Japanese-style painting in Japan. Instead, he associated himself with other Japanese artists in London who practiced Western-style painting (yōga) rather than Japanese-style painting (Nihonga), including Hara Bushō and Miyake Kokki (rendered Katsumi in the chronology), the latter of whose preferred medium was watercolor, just as it was for Markino. These facts lead me to suspect that the perceived “Japanese-ness” in Markino’s work perhaps resulted less from an unconscious proclivity and more from a studied stylization that the artist produced in order to craft a “Japanese” effect in his work.

Second, as admirably as the book recounts the Edwardian representations and reminiscences of London that Markino’s work extolled, the absence of substantial engagement with Japanese-language sources shows the limit of a monolingual study when seeking to understand the career of a bilingual and multicultural figure. The reader can only wonder how a critical selection of Japanese-language sources, which would provide a counterpart to the rich array of English-language sources assembled in the book, might lead to a more multi-dimensional discussion of this figure who consciously negotiated working in London and being Japanese. If Markino was known for his affected “Japanese” writing style in English, how might he have constructed a “Londoner” or an Anglicized persona for himself in Japan and in Japanese? To bring about such differences from within Markino/Makino might be one way to continue the critical evaluation of this transcultural figure that Rodney’s study has usefully opened up.

Noriko Murai
Associate Professor, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Sophia University

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