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Forget about the Potato Eaters

16 July 2006 – Forget about the Potato Eaters and the Sunflowers. The Van Gogh Museum has a spectacular exhibition of Japanese art from the Meiji period.

In 1883, Amsterdam hosted the International Colonial and Export Exhibition at what is today the Museumplein. Japan was represented by art objects. The bronze objects, according to a visitor, were “so beautiful, that one cannot understand how it is possible to create something so perfect”.

For two centuries, Japan had secluded itself almost completely from the outside world, but under American pressure this changed. In 1868 the Meiji period started, that is, the period of ‘Enlightened Rule’. Japan got involved in the globalisation that lasted from the mid 1800s until the First World War.

After a long period of isolation, Japan was now eagerly absorbing foreign influences. The class system was abolished, the samurai lost the right to carry a sword and men started to wear a Western hat with their kimono. Artists were influenced by Western ideas about perspective and started using new chemical pigments.

At the same time, the West developed a taste for the mysterious Japan. Giacomo Puccini wrote Madame Butterfly, the ‘Jolly Jap’ made its appearance in British musicals and in Paris there were forty shops selling Asiatic items. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were inspired by the colourful woodcuts of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).

Japan actively promoted its art abroad, for example by sending representations to the world exhibitions. The government created an enterprise that was to stimulate the production of export art. It spent 500,000 yen on the preparations for the 1873 world exhibition in Vienna, which represented almost one percent of the national budget.

Although Japan was modernising rapidly, the export art used traditional themes and motives that corresponded to the Western image of Japan. The same themes were also the subject of hand coloured photographs that were sold in large numbers to Western tourists in Japan.

The Van Gogh has compiled an exhibition of objects from the Meiji period, from the collection of the Iranian-born Nasser Khalili. That makes the exhibition, as much as the art itself, a product of globalisation. The collection includes subtle images of flowers, but also sculptures representing dragons, polar bears and samurai.

At the exhibition, considerable attention is given to the techniques the artists used. An example is the cloisonné. In this technique, enamel is put into cells that are separated by strips of copper or silver, to prevent the colours from running.

Sometimes additional enamel was added so as to heighten it, in order to create a suggestion of depth. Cloisonné was produced mainly for export purposes. When foreign demand dropped in the 20th century, the craft all but vanished.

Apart from the Khalili collection, two more exhibitions have opened as part of the Japanese Season at the Van Gogh. These exhibitions clearly try to elaborate on the cultural exchanges that produced the Meiji art.

Fashion designers Viktor & Rolf have designed an exhibition in which 19th century women from Tokyo and Paris are juxtaposed, and photographer Guus Rijven photographed the 53 stations along the Tokaido highway, which had been depicted in the 19th century by Hiroshige.

Hiroshige's prints are splendid, but the attempts to link Japanese art to other cultures have been something of a failure. The idea to confront the Japanese art with other cultures is certainly interesting, but the elaboration seems somewhat forced.

However, this is but a minor criticism. All in all, the Japanese Season is very much worth a visit.

Opening hours and admission fees can be found here. Catalogue: Kris Schiermeier and Matthi Forrer, Wonders of Imperial Japan.


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