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Imposition of Exposition Exhibition Export Ware

 Two Meiji-era Japanese exposition objects (2017.6.1a-h and 36756) on view 
in the Dr. Wan-Lin & Assumpta Kiang Family Foundation Rotunda.
Globalization in the 19th and early 20th Centuries in many cases led to the butting of heads on a national scale, but the conflict served as a fantastic motivator for both art and trade. Especially before the Great War tore Europe in two, the principle way in which industrialized countries competed on the world’s stage was the international exposition: grandiose fairs in which countries set up pavilions showcasing their latest and most groundbreaking scientific and cultural achievements. Between the Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco there were 17 expositions officially sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions and hundreds of smaller-scale expositions. At the onset of this same period, on the far side of the globe, the previously isolated island nation of Japan had recently been forced back into global affairs by the United States. Shortly thereafter, in 1868, the old feudal shogunate gave way to the Meiji government. Quickly realizing that positively influencing the Western perception of Japan would hasten the renegotiation of unfavorable trade agreements and combat a dangerous trade deficit, the new guard competed in world fairs with the fervor of an Olympian vying for gold. Both the newly installed incense burner, the Japanese word for which is koro, and the gold and silk threaded dragon tapestry of the Bowers Museum’s North Wing were made during this time and speak volumes to this dedication.
Incense Burner (Koro), 1873-1915
Japan
Bronze and gilt; 84 x 33 x 23 in.
2017.6.1a-h
Gift of Ted Townsend
The first consideration when comparing the koro and the tapestry is that the two objects are very different approaches to national advancement. The koro may have been exhibited in an exposition’s manufactures building before being sold, but more likely still it was produced directly for sale. The latter piece was designed for a fine art pavilion. The methodology behind this koro, as evidenced by its motifs, is very similar to that of the Meiji government in aiding in the creation of furniture and household decorative pieces. The government sent officers to the United States and Europe to research the most popular designs in the West, then compiled their findings into design catalogues such as the Onchizuroku, which were passed to along to manufacturers for production. Though the Meiji government never took this exact approach with bronzeware, they did officially sponsor manufacturing studios. It is possible based upon the golden eagle finial topping this koro, that it was made by Suzuki Chokichi who was a master at capturing birds in bronze. Alternatively, it may have been made under his direction at Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha, his studio which employed up to 60 manufacturers. Interestingly, this same bird motif, though only rarely used as a Japanese motif until the Meiji era, became commonplace following a welcome reception in the West where it is a symbol of national identity in both Germany and the United States. In a similar strain, the winged-dragon handles appear to have no antecedent in Japanese art whatsoever. Some Chinese dragons are depicted as having wings, but the hybrid feathered and scaled wings seen here are characteristic of European dragons. The third cultural concession this koro makes for Western markets are the stout, rounded people of the two central panels of the incense burner. In Japanese art figures tend to be elongated. Furthermore, both panels are typically Chinese scenes only without the mandatory Qing dynasty hairstyle: the queue. Even the design of the incense burner is inconvenient to the degree that it was almost certainly never used as a censer. Objects such as furniture and this koro were built to be sold. They were intended to give Japan popular export objects and to reverse the Japanese trade deficit.
Detail of 2017.6.1a-h.
Tapestry with Two Dragons, c. 1893
Japan
Silk, cotton and gold thread; 83 x 59 in.
36756
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben J. Allen
The flipside of export ware were fine arts works: ukiyo-e woodblock prints, paintings, and incredibly detailed textiles such as the Bowers Museum’s exposition-era Japanese textile. These were all intended to win cultural victories in the West, raising the standing of Japan rather than directly serving as export sales. However, despite significant intervention by Japan’s Meiji government, as late as the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris Japanese embroidery was still not considered fine art or exhibited in fine arts buildings. For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Meiji government officers took a direct approach and personally presented artworks to the exposition’s selection committee, finally succeeding in entering multiple genres of art into the exposition’s fine art hall, not the least of these was a series of 12 falcons made by Suzuki Chokichi which were called “lifelike” by an unabashedly impressed American public. Even more works were displayed in an authentic temporary-built Japanese pavilion called the Ho-o-Den. The Bowers textile is one of only two of these fine arts textiles to remain in US museums, originally purchased early in the exposition by the 8th governor of California, Leland Stanford, as a gift for his wife. Two traditional Japanese dragons locked in combat and embroidered in gold thread constitute the subject of this tapestry, which would still have been appealing to a Western audience due to its bold nature, but managed to maintained its cultural integrity with its culturally consistent depiction of dragons.
Ground plans for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Gallery of Fine Arts, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, and the Ho-o-Den (highlighted) all exhibited Japanese arts and manufactures. Excerpted from the Official Catalogue of Exhibits. Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1893.
Whether or not these objects can be considered works of traditional Japanese art, they exist as pages in a larger narrative on the modernization of Japan. Regardless of their beauty it can be easy to characterize such works as utilitarian, but one should keep in mind that like the WPA projects of the United States in the late 1930s and ‘40s their value lies as much in the service they did for their county as how they might look exhibited in the halls of a museum.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Friday, 10 July 2020

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