While we are all familiar with the beauty of the traditional Japanese kimono, most of us are less aware of the existence of the extraordinary ornamental textiles that were made in Japan for western homes in the late 19th century. From tomorrow, Oxford’s Ashmolean museum will open the first ever exhibition outside of Japan on these rare spectacular materials from the Meiji era, entitled ‘Threads of Silk and Gold’.
The Meiji era is an exceptionally rich artistic period in Japan’s history. As well as prints, ceramics, lacquerware and metalwork, Japanese artists produced exquisite embroideries, sophisticated resist-dyed silk and velvet panels, grand tapestries, and appliqué work which aspired to create ‘paintings in silk thread’. The Japanese textiles depicted eagles, peacocks, monkeys and lions, peonies and willow trees, all created through millions of almost invisible stitches on silk backgrounds, often including embroidery in gold wire. This was the famous period of ‘Japonisme’, which saw the European Impressionist painters exploring themes and styles taken from Japanese art, and Victorian rooms filled with Japanese decorative arts and crafts.
Aristocrats of the western world were dazzled by the imports of sumptuous tapestries and wall-hangings which cost a fortune in the UK. No fashionable drawing room, was complete without a Japanese wall hanging or screen, and some owners of the most elaborate textiles included Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and the Tzar of Russia.
However, though they were adored up until the early 20th century, the beautiful Japanese textiles were promptly thrown out by the acre when they fell out of fashion in around 1912. The disregard shown towards the fabrics after this time accounts for the severe shortage of pieces that remain in good condition today; many materials were simply left to fall victim to sunlight and insects when they were no longer wanted by their owners. “The ones we have here on the walls are such rarities,” said Dr Clare Pollard, curator of the exhibition at the Ashmolean. “They hardly ever come up at sales, and when they do they’re usually in disastrous condition. I think it’s because they are just so rare that they have been so little studied.” The exhibition includes many textiles that have never before been exhibited anywhere in the world, and some from the Ashmolean’s own collection have not been seen in several lifetimes.
Pollard has said that the exhibition has significance beyond the rarity of the collection, as the fabrics also provide an insight into Japanese history. “They tell us so much about the Japan of their day” she said. They are “an idealised vision of the Japan and its culture that appealed most to the west, an unspoiled natural world sold for the foreign currency the country desperately needed to begin the process of modernisation and industrialisation.”
The exhibition will run at the Ashmolean museum, Oxford from 9th November 2012 to 27th January 2013. The exhibition includes of special lectures on the Meija era, such as ‘Ornamental Textiles from Meiji Japan‘ by Jasleen Khandari on Saturday 17th November.
Sources include: The Guardian, The Ashmolean Museum
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