Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 30, 2007
Tradition and Transformation: Japanese Art 1860–1940
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, January 27–December 31, 2006
Tateishi Harumi. Clover. 1934. Ink and color on paper. 180 x 199 cm. (70 7/8 x 78 3/8 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Keith McLeod Fund, 2004.242. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It is unusual but probably auspicious for an exhibition to last from January to December, as Tradition and Transformation: Japanese Art 1860–1940 does. Presenting visually compelling images and well-documented histories, the exhibition offers a revealing glimpse into the formative decades of Japan’s emergence as a modernizing nation. The Museum of Fine Arts’ collecting of Japanese art can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, and is deeply indebted to the insight and generosity of a group of Bostonians, including Edward Sylvester Morse, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, William Sturgis Bigelow, Charles Goddard Weld, and Deman Waldo Ross, all of whom traveled to Japan after the 1868 Meiji Restoration that set the stage for Japan’s modernization. Fenollosa’s former student and later colleague Okakura Kakuzô contributed significantly to the building of the collections in 1904–13 as curator of the museum’s Department of Chinese and Japanese Art. The collections have been further expanded by other generous private donations, such as the William S. and John T. Spaulding Collection of woodblock prints and books, the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection of modern prints and photographs, and the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of postcards.

Tradition and Transformation showcases MFA’s latest expansion into nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japanese art, as stated in the exhibition’s introductory wall text: “Ten years ago the Museum could not have staged such an exhibition.” The exhibition is divided chronologically into three parts, and each occupies one of the three second-floor Japanese painting galleries. Part 1 centers on the 1868 Meiji Restoration and its aftermaths. Toyohara Chikanobu’s triptych print, A Mirror of Japanese Nobility, properly marks the beginning of the exhibition. It depicts Emperor Meiji (r. 1867–1911), together with the empress and the young crown prince. The print was created in 1887 in the heyday of Japan’s modernization. Unlike previous emperors, Meiji wears a Western-style officer’s uniform; the crown prince’s uniform echoes his imperial father’s; and the empress is dressed up in a fashionable Parisian outfit. In contrast with traditional compositions in which the emperor always took the central position, Meiji sits on the right and the empress on the left, flanking the crown prince in the center, a remote yet clear reference to Christianity’s Holy Family. Most revealing is the permission and possibility of portraying the imperial family in such a public and mass-produced commercial medium. By 1887, Japan was quickly moving toward modernization and Westernization, especially considering that only eight decades before, in 1804, the leading woodblock print artist Kitagawa Utamaro was put in jail simply for depicting, also in a triptych, the sixteenth-century shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi with his concubines.

Next to the triptych of the Meiji imperial family is a group of small, old photographic portraits of some of the most important leaders of the Meiji government. Iwakura Tomomi (photo by Elliott & Fry Photography, 1870s) was an influential engineer of the Restoration, and in 1871 led a fifty-person mission to Europe and the United States to study Western institutions. Kaneko Kentarô (photo by Warren’s Photography, 1872) was a Harvard classmate with Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and a favorite student of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; he later helped draft the Meiji Constitution and became Japan’s Minister of Justice in 1900. Kido Takayoshi (photo by Maull & Co., undated), a member of the Iwakura mission, wrote about his visit to Boston in these words of admiration, reproduced on an exhibition label: “We were told that this area ranks first in the United States in the number of scholars resident, and that the manners here are superior to those of any other place.” Kido’s viewpoint is evidently supported by a large group photo included in the exhibition of Charles Knapp Dillaway, headmaster of the prestigious Roxbury Latin School, surrounded by four of his Japanese students who were among the first studying in the U.S. (photo by A. Sonrel, undated). All of these photo portraits are cartes de visite. They are formal, solemn, and dignified, characteristic of discipline and determination. Another fascinating work in the same gallery is Kawanabe Kyôsai’s four-volume woodblock printed and illustrated book, Kyôsai’s Treatise on Painting (Kyôsai gadan), with a page opened to a Western-style drawing of anatomy (given to Kyôsai by his British architect-pupil Josiah Conder). These images and their uses of different media manifest the extent of Japan’s transformation in the decades after the 1868 Restoration.

Part 2 of the exhibition unfolds the rise of nihonga—a new artistic method that took its inspiration from traditional Japanese painting styles combined with recently imported Western techniques like perspective and shading—as Japan’s major artistic expression at the turn of the twentieth century. Kano Hôgai’s Eagles in a Ravine and Hashimoto Gatô’s Landscape with Autumn Moon best represent the first-generation nihonga artists’ synthesis of Eastern and Western styles. Another highlight in the second gallery is a small selection of twenty-six postcards from the Lauder collection. (The MFA’s 2004 special exhibition, Art of the Japanese Postcard, showcasing the Lauder collection of over 20,000 postcards remains an unforgettable experience for this author.) The postcard was adopted by Japan as early as 1873. Thanks to the government’s distribution and promotion of postcards with war subjects during the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, the postcard became a novel graphic art symbolic of the twentieth century, and it quickly replaced traditional woodblock prints as the new images of modern Japan. The exhibited postcards include historical and literary subjects such as Kajita Hanko’s 1905 illustrations from the Heian court lady Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel, The Tale of Genji; modern interpretations of traditional ukiyo themes such as Kaburaki Kiyokata’s 1905 Ten Types of Love; and contemporary events such as Kaburaki’s 1906 Contemporary Women series.

The third and last part of the exhibition looks relatively scant in comparison, with the works of only three early twentieth-century artists. Hashiguchi Goyô’s three small color lithographs portray in half-length women bathing, combing their hair, and powdering their neck, and are both reminiscent of Utamaro’s classic woodblock print images of women from the previous century and are executed in the modern spirit of postcards. Onchi Kôshirô was a leader of the Creative Print Movement (Sôsaku hanga), and his fourteen abstract and expressionistic prints show the artist’s inspiration from Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinsky as seen in Western art magazines. The most eye-catching image in the third gallery is Tateishi Harumi’s 1934 panel painting, Clover, which dominates the entire central wall of the third gallery. By depicting two young women lying on the green flowery clover, one in a pure white dress and the other in a navy-like school uniform, Tateishi “captures,” according to an exhibition label, “the bittersweet mood of Japanese society in its transition between the expansive, optimistic 1920s and the increasingly militaristic, authoritarian 1930s.”

Tradition and Transformation was originally scheduled for January 27–July 2 but was extended three times to August 20, November 9, and December 31, respectively. This year-long period has seen several other exhibitions in the museum’s other Japanese art galleries, such as A Much Recorded War: The Russo-Japanese War in History and Imagery, July 1, 2005–March 28, 2006; Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century and Contemporary Cloth: Stoles by Minagawa Makiko (both October 6, 2005–July 9, 2006); On Stage in Osaka: Actor Prints from the MFA Collection (entirely from the former Bigelow collection), April 5–December 31, 2006; and Tsutsugaki Textiles from the Collection of David and Marita Paly and Beyond Basketry: Japanese Bamboo Art (both August 19, 2006–July 6, 2007). Tradition and Transformation seems to have been the center of all these exhibitions. More importantly, Tradition and Transformation sheds new historical light on the museum’s famous permanent exhibition of Heian and Kamakura Buddhist sculptures and paintings in the Buddhist Temple Room and two more Buddhist art galleries on the same floor, which has long been considered the best collection of the kind outside Japan. That Bigelow’s extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, woodblock prints, and decorative arts serves as the nucleus of the museum’s holdings of Japanese art is evident both in Tradition and Transformation and in the other exhibitions. His contributions are well recognized in the first gallery of Tradition and Transformation, where a portrait of him painted in ink on silk and mounted into a traditional Japanese hanging scroll is attributed to Kobayashi Eitaku, dated to the 1880s during Bigelow’s stay in Japan. In paying homage to the contributions of past and present collectors as one of its organizing themes, Tradition and Transformation becomes a living history of the museum’s collecting of Japanese art.

Heping Liu
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Wellesley College

Please send comments about this review to