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‘The Allure of Japan’ explores America’s fascination with East

Published: Monday, April 9, 2012

Updated: Monday, April 9, 2012 12:04

 

 

The artistic expressions of historical Japanese artists such as Ukiyo-E and Hiroshige, among countless others, have influenced world art for centuries — from Claude Monet’s “Madame Monet in Japanese Costume” (1875) painting of his wife to Mary Cassatt’s block prints featuring her typical subjects of mothers and their children. The MFA’s exhibit, “The Allure of Japan,” began in late March and will continue through the end of December — and the exhibit is not to be missed.

A collection of work spanning more than 100 years, “The Allure of Japan” examines the undeniable American fascination with Japan during the turn of the 20th century. This fascination stemmed from several political and social factors, including the realities of Japanese immigration to the United States via Hawaii and the Japanese government’s subsequent actions to limit emigration. Many Japanese aesthetics, like the poignant usage of negative space and contrasting splashes of vibrant color, have since made their way into America’s visual oeuvre. 

The sudden influx of and interest in all things Japan accompanied a burgeoning spirit of self-righteous Americana during the early 1900s, spread through an art movement dubbed “Japonisme” by the French art critic Philippe Burty. Japonisme, which mixes Western and Asian motifs, was aided by the advent of more accessible global travel and technologies such as the telephone and electricity that allowed communication to become more widespread.

The historical rationale and realities behind this Japanese infatuation are lost in the art, however, which yields to picturesque block prints and paintings of lacquer furniture in well-appointed staterooms. After examining the art in the exhibit, one would assume that Japan’s greatest export during the 1900s was its own aesthetic culture, conveniently packed away into crates and sent overseas to adorn the dressing rooms of well-to-do ladies or to be mass-produced on the backs of postcards proclaiming “wish you were here.”

The collection consisted of a culmination of Japanese objects, artwork, furniture, American prints and examples of its far-reaching influences the world over, all from the museum’s Japanese collections. As a patron stated during a gallery tour, “This art is wonderful, but mellows out all the unrest at the time.” Occasionally, the exhibit lacks cohesion and appears to be an assortment of vaguely Asian-influenced artwork and knickknacks whose organization is not informed historically or thematically. The result was a visually interesting exhibit that does not lend much insight into the culture of the era it explored.

During the historical period chronicled by the exhibit, the forces of opening trade and a mushrooming globalization of cultures made such a fusion of Japanese and American art possible. As many artistic expressions become fads and vessels of their former glory, Japanese art, in kitsch or in earnest, still remains today and is most evident in the works of Cassatt and Monet, who both adopted a Japanese, calligraphic-style of painting. One of the exhibition’s strengths is its subscription to the often-trite “East Meets West” style without appearing stale. The work highlights the budding American obsession with travel during the early 1900s, as well as American self-determinism. The exhibit shows the ways in which Western artists interpreted the modern world and altered how generations understood Japan both as a culture and a country.

Eric Johnson, a museum patron and artist in the Boston area, commented on how his personal experiences as a Japanese American have altered his perception of the collection. 

“You can understand that the artists are interpreting something idealistic, but it doesn’t seem real, you know? I bet people went to Japan afterward expecting geisha all over the place,” he said.

Thus, the MFA’s latest exhibit captures the early 20th century American perception of a seemingly distant, alien culture.

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