Meiji era art from Japan at MFA Houston

Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) was a period of unprecedented cultural and technological transition. Over these remarkable decades, the country experienced radical social and political shifts, which propelled the historically inward-facing society into a new modern, global era. This summer, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents a fresh look at the art of this transformative era with the landmark exhibition “Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan,” on view from July 7 through September 15, 2024.

Following over two centuries of near-total isolation, the archipelago of Japan was thrown into chaos with the arrival of the American Commodore Perry in 1853; following a series of international trade agreements, the feudal fiefdoms of Japan were transformed into a modern nation-state, with the Emperor “restored” to the throne.

Through more than 150 extraordinary objects borrowed from over 70 public and private collections, the exhibition reveals the profound cross-cultural impact of the country’s developing relationships with the wider world. Paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and fine examples of enamel, lacquer, embroidery, and textiles all evidence a blending of cultures and techniques and the innovative interchange of old and new.

Uniquely, the exhibition features a diverse selection of both export wares and items made for display in Japan, reflecting the diversity of tastes and aesthetic discourse in the Meiji period. The exhibition also features several recently discovered masterpieces of Japanese art, many of which have never been shown publicly.

“’Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan’ provides a fascinating window onto this transformative era, a collision of culture and identity that forged newly modern approaches to esthetics, trade and statehood in Japan,” Gary Tinterow, Director and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said. “It also shows to great effect the unprecedented achievements of Japanese artisans and artists, culminating centuries of technical perfection. We are pleased to partner with Japanese Art Society of America, on their 50th anniversary, to bring this unprecedented exhibition to the MFAH.”

“Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan” has been organized by the Japanese Art Society of America. The exhibition is co-curated by Bradley Bailey, the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Curator of Asian Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Chelsea Foxwell, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Chicago. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue with essays and entries, published by Yale University Press.

“Late-19th-century Japan represents an early and compelling chapter in the history of global modern art, as Japan became one of the first non-Western nations seeking to repel colonization by making the case for the integrity of its art and culture,” Bailey said. “While seemingly opposed, these two ambitions intertwined to produce a distinct form of expression that helped to define Japan’s classical past as well as its global future.”

About the Exhibition

Utagawa (Baidō), 'Kokunimasa, Hell Courtesan,' c.
1900, one of a pair of six-panel screens; ink, color, gold pigment, and silver leaf on paper
Utagawa (Baidō), ‘Kokunimasa, Hell Courtesan,’ c. 1900, one of a pair of six-panel screens; ink, color, gold pigment, and silver leaf on paper, private collection.

“Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan” is organized into five thematic sections that reveal the varied cross-cultural influences on Japanese history and identity over the course of the Meiji period.

Crafting a Modern State highlights the emergence of a country opening up to the outside world through prints, and other objects depicting Western scenes and motifs. Depictions of Meiji rulers in Western clothing and portrayals of American dignitaries in Japanese clothing underscore these new international connections. This also illustrates the importance of art and artwork both as industry and as a tool of diplomacy to the fledgling Meiji state.

Navigating Changing Seas demonstrates the continued cultural importance of the sea in Japanese art, conveying its role in bringing the outside world to Japan, and bringing Japan to the outside world. A massive bronze masterpiece, nearly life size, of the Dragon King of Sea presenting a warrior with a magical tide-controlling jewel, the most significant piece of Meiji Period metalwork in the United States, is one of the highlights of this section.

Fashioning the Self assesses the emergence of a new Japanese identity as a non-white, modern nation-state, and considers the changing gender roles of the period, the end of samurai status, the creation of a Meiji bureaucracy, and the growing embrace of modern conveniences as seen in clothing items and prints such as Telephone Call: A Merchant’s Wife.

This section also highlights the unprecedented new social freedom enjoyed by women, using a series of woodblock printed illustrations from women’s magazines, a new genre that emerged during the period as women in Japan achieved widespread literacy for the first time. Another highlight of this section is a bowler hat by Hayakawa Shōkōsai I, woven entirely out bamboo reeds.

Making History, Enshrining Myth examines the importance of a national religion, traditions, and myths to the formation of a modern nation-state, and considers how a self-conscious reinterpretation and re-articulation of the past helped inform a contemporary nation and its global future through unique new expressions. Crucially, this section also considers the role of China and the appreciation of Chinese art and culture during the Meiji Period and includes a rare and important two-sided painted screen by Noguchi Shōhin, one of the few female painters of the Meiji Period.

Cultivating a Modern Aesthetic shows the traditional themes of plants and animals as the motifs and subject matter most eagerly embraced by foreigners, and therefore commonly made for export. Such artistic production translated to diplomatic soft power as well as a lucrative way to fund industry. It also fueled Western expectations for and definitions of “Asian tradition,” setting precedents for cultural and geopolitical relations and tensions that continue to unfold in the global arena today.

This section features several important painted screens that have not been shown publicly for over 100 years and an imposing but beautiful ceramic painted made by Itaya Hazan, the father of Japanese studio ceramics. This vessel, the only known work by the artist in North America and one of only a handful outside of Japan, was acquired directly from the artist by Henry Walters in 1915, and is one of many such works in the exhibition that were purchased during the Meiji Period as contemporary art, highlighting Japan’s importance and might on the world stage by the end of these tumultuous five decades of new Japan.

About the Japanese Art Society of America

The Japanese Art Society of America (JASA) promotes the study and appreciation of Japanese art. Founded in 1973 as the Ukiyo-e Society of America by collectors of Japanese prints, JASA’s mission has expanded to include related fields of Japanese art. Through its annual lectures, seminars, and other events, the Society provides a dynamic forum in which members can exchange ideas and experiences with experts about traditional and contemporary arts of Japan.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Spanning 14 acres in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the Fayez S. Sarofim Campus of the MFAH comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts.

The MFAH is also home to the Glassell School of Art, with its Core Residency Program and Junior and Studio schools; and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

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