Sunday, November 14, 2010

How The West Was Hung: Foreign Representations In Japanese Art

A Russian couple visit Japan in 1861. Via.
The Tokugawa Era in Japan was an extraordinary period in Japanese History, marked by cultural renaissance, prominence of the samurai class and most notably, almost total isolation from contact with the world outside of Japan’s borders. Save for one port at Dejima in modern day Nagasaki prefecture, Japan during this period had extremely limited contact with foreigners, especially those from the West. Then in the mid-19th century, due to the efforts of Admiral Perry, Japan began to open up its borders to people of different nationalities. This ushered in a new era of diplomacy, and unsurprisingly, an influx of foreigners in Japan. Most Japanese people at that point had never seen a foreigner, so this rapid increase of the foreign population in the port city of Yokohama caused Japanese people to reflect on their views of foreigners. One of the ways foreign peoples manifested themselves in the eyes of the Japanese was through art.

The Philidelphia Museum of Art hosts Picturing the West Yokohama Prints 1859–1870s -- an exhibition showcasing Japanese ukiyo-e (floating world portraits) woodblock prints with foreigners as the main subject. When one looks at these paintings, the subjects are not caricatures as one might expect. Rather, one gets the sense that the artists were driven by excitement and curiosity than fear and xenophobia.

Lee Lawrence's excellent profile of the exhibition in The Wall Street Journal discusses the various quirky new technologies and customs that came flooding into Japan all at once, and describes the work of Sadahide, one of the exhibition’s most prominently featured artists:
The map is by Sadahide, in many ways the star of the show. Of the 15 artists featured, he is the best represented and the one who most successfully offers both beauty and information. His vivid and dynamic compositions convey the hustle and bustle of Yokohama's markets and thoroughfares. And his Sales Room in the Foreign Mercantile Firm (1861) accurately introduces Yokohama's cast of characters in two cleverly crafted scenes. On the right, Caucasian and Japanese men conduct business with the help of a pig-tailed Chinese assistant, while one of the Europeans in the foreground is shown writing horizontally. The left half of the print is a more domestic scene—foreign women preparing food and an Indian servant plucking a duck.

Sadahide and other artists variously highlight the novelty of pocket watches, hot-air balloons and horse-drawn carriages, the luxury of large windowpanes and chandeliers, and the oddity of elephants, camels and a woman on horseback.
Often in the field of Japanese studies, there tends to be a lot focused on how Japanese people are represented in the West without seeing it from the other side. Thanks to this exhibition, which closes today, one can get a new perspective on history, art and cultural understanding, like a Japanese fisherman seeing a hot air balloon for the first time.


Image: Russians (A Russian Couple) (Detail), 1861. Utagawa Yoshikazu, Japanese
Color woodcut. Sheet (Öban tate-e): 14 3/8 x 9 5/8 inches (36.5 x 24.4 cm). Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund and with funds contributed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner, Dr. Emanuel Wolff, the Derald and Janet Ruttenberg Foundation, Mrs. Edward G. Budd, Jr., and David P. Willis, 1968.

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