A 19th Century Japanese flat tray from the Korin school. Gift of Mrs. Howard S. Liddell.

Courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum

A 19th Century Japanese flat tray from the Korin school. Gift of Mrs. Howard S. Liddell.

October 3, 2016

Timeless Conquerers: American Sojourns and the Collecting of Japanese Art

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History continuously shows that Western influences have played a dominant role in the shaping of many regions of the world. From hemisphere to hemisphere, nation to nation, Western forces have consistently proved their acquisitive nature in conquests of land, people, and resources. Japanese art and culture are no exception to this rule.

Walking down the steps leading to American Sojourns and the Collecting of Japanese Art, I was met with a silence only broken by the occasional footsteps of security guards lightly pacing the interconnected rooms of the museum halls. The exhibit’s pieces, displayed in a comfortably small space, radiated an air of tranquility and sophistication. Mounted in wooden frames, the people and lifestyle of Japan during the Meiji ruling come to life.

The entrance of the exhibit displays a large sign detailing the account of the collections, in which Americans were finally granted access to Japan after it had remained closed and blocked off to foreigners during the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Permission to enter in 1853 was quickly followed by a wave of tourism, in which American citizens traveled to the country for leisure and increased exploration, doting on Japanese art and design. Rather than simply seeing a culture depicted through elaborate paintings and artwork, the question of Western imperialism dawned upon me. From the portraits of Japanese women created by European artists to the books written by American authors, I could not help but wonder if the collection truly told a story of Japanese art and lifestyle or an account of Western cultural representation and the ruthless devotion to exploration, cultivation and collection.

Beautifully painted and visually compelling, many of the works depict Japanese men and women performing everyday tasks such as standing on a stone bridge, walking along a path and receiving lessons in the English language. In one framed work entitled “Dressing,” three Japanese women are depicted with two of the three sitting on a wooden floor. The women are dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos while a folding screen decorated with cherry blossom trees is centered behind them. Other paintings are more personal, with portraits of women adorning the enclosed space. The painting entitled “Girl” by Austrian artist Baron Raimund von Stillfried is a simple headshot portrait of a young Japanese girl pictured in a robe and pinned up hair. The description for the work details the artist of the painting receiving training by Felice Beato, the first European to open a photography business in Yokohama.

Of this description, I questioned the exhibit’s portrayal of Japanese art, as many of the works depict European works rather than Japanese artists, thus portraying a primarily Western viewpoint of Japanese life and culture. These foreigners seemed to have formed their own depictions and representations of Japanese people and its society rather than actual accounts from Japanese individuals themselves.

Paintings are not the only pieces featured in the exhibition. A number of crafts such as pots, trays and trinkets lie for viewing, allowing a greater cultural depiction of tangible Japanese art. Surprisingly enough, American authors are also featured in the exhibition, with their featured books detailing a number of accounts ranging from Japanese arts to discussions by scholar Okakura Kakuzo. Irish-born Francis Brinley, also contributed to American publications of Japanese works, as he created a number of works that featured photographs and texts describing the culture that appealed to many.

Leaving the museum, a number of questions took hold in my mind, most prominently the question of Western prominence and the timelessness its actions presents. In depicting Japanese life and culture through primarily European and American viewpoints, a dominant cultural misrepresentative is established. Rather than observing the true form of the Japanese culture, viewers are involuntarily idealizing the images and works before them, works that do not necessarily portray an accurate depiction of nineteenth century Japanese life. In this way, what is seen versus the underlying truth of a culture’s representation run parallel to each other. Yet it is this depiction that ultimately shapes or knowledge of the culture we associate these images with.

If not attending for the paintings and artifacts from a beautifully complex and enriching culture, I highly recommend checking out the exhibit and judging for yourself whether this collection tells the story of Japanese art and history or the story of another successful Western feat that has helped contribute the way we look at not just Japanese culture, but our own and others today.

Isabelle Philippe is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at ip93@cornell.edu. 

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