Mystique of the Meiji Era: Japanese Art and Collectibles

Meiji Era: Japanese Art and Collectibles - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi - Fujiwara no Yasumasa Playing the Flute by Moonlight. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi - Fujiwara no Yasumasa Playing the Flute by Moonlight. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Using its rich artistic heritage to propel Japan onto the international stage, the Meiji period from 1868 until the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 was hugely transformative for the country. Closed to international trade for more than 200 years, Japan transformed from its medieval past into a modern, international country, and it did so on its own terms with art at the forefront of its new, modern image.

The political change not only had a huge impact on society, but it also had an explosive effect on the creativity in Japanese arts at a time of huge transition across the country. The culture and art of Japan has long held a mystique and fascination to Westerners, so when the long-reigning Tokugawa shoguns of the Edo period were toppled, a new era for a new nation open to the world was born. And nowhere was this more evident than in the art of the Meiji period, which mirrored the evolving nation’s developing relationship with the outside world.

In just a few decades Japan transformed into a Western-style powerhouse. Involving every aspect of Japanese society, the establishment was replaced by the adoption of Western dress and influences, with the historic print culture in Japan perfectly encapsulating this. What historically featured brightly colored prints of actors, royal courtesans, and scenic views was replaced by a wealth of new subjects during a time of dramatic social, political, and cultural change as artists found a new perspective from the West.

Go West

It was an era of firsts. Instead of looking inward, Japan hosted the official Bunten exhibition in Tokyo in 1907, which replicated the salon style galleries of France and introduced Japanese audiences to a range of new artistic styles. The participation of Japanese artists in European exhibitions also fuelled demand and intrigue in Meiji and Japanese art that had previously been shrouded in mystery.

International demand for Meiji art was so high in the late 19th century that a series of well-received exhibitions across Europe and the United States were held. The exhibitions in London (1862) and Paris (1867) were so well-received, in fact, that the new imperial government utilized this new found popularity to combat the country’s dire economic situation.

Not only was it an artistic blessing for international audiences beguiled by this newfound art form, but this artistic revolution also played a vital role in enhancing the country’s international reputation and offset the cost of its modernisation. As a result, more exhibitions followed in Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878, 1899, and 1900) and Chicago (1893), which all featured carefully selected artists and works to showcase the best of the new Meiji art.

Realist Neo-classical artworks were popular across Europe in the 19th century, so Japan’s Meiji art was an exciting world away from the Western norm. Seizing on this difference, the Japanese pavilions at the international exhibition were modelled on traditional buildings, which only furthered fascination among Westerners and enhanced the beguiling culture of Japan. It proved to be huge commercial and cultural success as Western audiences were fascinated by this long-isolated country and made international stars of the selected artists.

Meiji Era: Japanese Art and Collectibles - Bake-Bake Gakkō (化々學校) by Kawanabe Kyōsai.

Bake-Bake Gakkō (化々學校) by Kawanabe Kyōsai. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Production Change

As much as Meiji art represented a seismic change in what constituted art for Western audiences, it also represented a monumental shift in Japanese culture. Prior to the restoration of imperial rule and the Meiji era, Japan’s main artistic production focused on swords and armour, which were commissioned by samurai patrons in the Edo period. The Meiji era changed this. A rapid expansion of artistic forms, subjects and styles sat in stark contrast to the relatively limited production it preceded. The Meiji government even promoted the yoga (Western) style of painting, with Japanese students sent to study abroad, which opened the door for a cultural exchange as European artists travelled to the eastern tip of Asia.

The influence of Western art was far reaching. Even a revival of the traditional themes and techniques of Nihonga painting reflected the influence of European aesthetics. This was typical of Meiji art’s blending of culture and conventions, as it celebrated the innovative exchange of old and new.

Japanese craftsmanship has long been celebrated for its devotion to perfection and dedicated approach to craft. In the Meiji era this was married with an openness to science and industrialisation that brought about a rapid progression of techniques in painting, lacquerware, and furniture, which gradually increased in size, as ceilings grew higher as Japan adapted to Western living. This Western outlook was confirmed in 1877 with the first National Industrial Exhibition in Tokyo, 1877.

Key Artists of the Meiji Era

One of the most exciting painters of the era, Kawanabe Kyōsai witnessed Japan transform from a feudal country into a modern force, as his life straddled the Endo and Meiji periods. Blurring the line between the popular and elite art, Kyōsai’s witty, energetic and imaginative work sat well with Japan’s more relaxed social approach that allowed him to fully express himself – and his art retains a powerful impact today, influencing manga and even tattoo artists.

Considered the first political caricaturist of Japan and successor to Hokusai, his life was wild and undisciplined, and his work reflected this. It didn’t hinder his creativity though, as he produced what is considered to be the first manga magazine in 1874: Eshinbun Nipponchi. His bold approach can also be seen in his woodblock print, Bake-Bake Gakkō, in which caricatures of demons and folklore characters teach class in response to the Meiji government’s implementation of compulsory education.

Kano Hogai similarly evolved as an artist during the Meiji era, having originally painted for the shogun, before painting eerie images that blended Japanese and Western styles. Known as nihonga, the style was a traditional interpretation of Japanese art for its newly established modern international audience.

Meiji Era: Japanese Art and Collectibles - Two Dragons (in Cloud) by Kano Hogai.

Two Dragons (in Cloud) by Kano Hogai. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This can be seen in the seminal artist’s Two Dragons (in Cloud), which incorporates a traditional image of a pair of intertwined dragons using the Western technique of three-dimensional perspective, which was more realistic than any of the traditional Suiboku-ga (ink painting) of dragons familiar to Japanese audiences.

Not every artist embraced this new Western approach. Just ask Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Widely recognized as the last great master of woodblock printing and painting, known as ukiyo-e, his focus on the traditional at a time of great social and technological change ensured his legacy. He was an innovator of the genre that pushed the limits of Japanese woodblock printing, even as Japan was adopting the Western mass reproduction methods of photography and lithography.

Among his most noted series is Waking Up: A Girl of the Kōka Era, which is regarded as one of the most important Meiji series of ukiyo-e prints. The fine lines of the woman’s hair show the delicacy of Yoshitoshi’s technique, which was recognized in an 1885 issue of the art and fashion magazine Tokyo Hayari Hosomiki that ranked Yoshitoshi as the premier ukiyo-e artist, ahead of fellow Meiji artists Utagawa Yoshiiku and Toyohara Kunichika. His devotion to his craft has been rewarded by time, as today his reputation continues to grow, and he is acknowledged as the greatest Japanese artist of his era.Meiji Era: Japanese Art and Collectibles - Two Japanese ivory netsuke, Meiji period.

Two Japanese ivory netsuke, Meiji period. Sold for €950 via Carlo Bonte Auctions (February 2023).

Themes and Symbolism

While the influence of the West is evident in Meiji art, the influence of Chinese art has been present throughout the centuries, and there are many parallels between Chinese and Japanese art. Elements of Meiji art reflect traditional Chinese materials and themes, as both cultures share a focus on plant or animal life. Motifs of dragons, cranes, fish, and rabbits adorn many Meiji-era pieces, which are rooted in Chinese culture.

Meiji art helped transform these forms with the introduction of newly imported techniques and materials for its new found Western audience. These themes can be seen in the paintings of artists from the era, as well as in Netsuke, which celebrated time honored Japanese motifs, like Buddhist deities and mythical animals.

The small sculptures developed as an art form in Japan and celebrate the delicacy and fine craftsmanship of Japanese artists in the Meiji era. The majority of Netsuke coming on the market today were produced during the Meiji era and can be picked up for a few hundred dollars, with rarer items going under the hammer for tens of thousands, making them an ideal entrance into Meiji era collectables.

Collector’s Perspective

The four remarkable decades that propelled Japan into the modern era were met with great enthusiasm in the West, and Meiji art is still revered today. Closed and mysterious as a society for centuries, Japan’s transformation into an outward facing country was greeted with enthusiasm, and its new found wealth of subjects for printmakers and artists to capture made them enticing collectibles for Western audiences.

Often imitated due to their popularity, authentic Meiji collectibles offer that rare chance to own a piece of art that’s both rich in cultural importance and craftsmanship. The unique qualities and cultural significance of these collectibles ensure high demand across the globe. After all, those four remarkable decades in Japan not only transformed the outlook and production of the country, but also brought about the birth of a global outlook. Couple this with the devotion to craftsmanship that Japan is historically known for and it’s easy to understand why Meiji era art and collectibles are so highly prized.

Sources: – Meiji Art Splendours of Japan | – Guide to Collecting Japanese Art | – Japanese Meiji Period Art Antiques | – Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection | – Kawanabe Kyōsai: the demon with a brush | University of Chicago Press – Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting: Kano Hogai and the Search for Images | – Waking Up: A Girl of the Kōka Era | Princeton University Art Museum – Becoming Modern, Becoming Global: Japanese Prints from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) | – Meiji Period Art 5 Things to Know | – Meiji Restoration | Smart Museum of Art – Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan | – Meiji Modern: Globalisation and Experimentation in Modern Japanese Art | National Museums Scotland – Netsuke