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Tradition & Innovation

The Art of Meiji Japan

May 18, 2005 - May 18, 2005

During the Edo or Tokugawa period (1615-1868), the shoguns closed Japan off from the rest of the world. When the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in 1853 with his famed ‘black ships? outfitted with their superior weaponry, he forced Japan to open its ports and the Japanese quickly realized how far behind the rest of the world their society had become. Foreign ideas and technology brought about unbelievable changes over the next few decades.

Since the late 12th century the Japanese emperors had become mere figureheads, but this changed when power was taken from the Tokugawa shogunate and given to Emperor Meiji in 1868. His rule, which would last until 1912, represents one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of the modern world. During his forty-five year rule, Japan underwent an astonishing transformation, changing from a feudal state to a major industrial and military world power. What had taken the Western powers centuries to accomplish, Japan achieved in a few short decades. The Meiji government improved Japan?s economic situation by implementing a number of Western style policies in rapid succession. It modernized the currency, revised and standardized the tax system, created a national banking system, designed a modern postal service, and founded a daily newspaper. Most people of the Meiji period enthusiastically imitated Western ways. To some extent, they felt the only way to be accepted as equals was to make themselves over in the Westerner’s image. In education, industry, transportation, communication, military, architecture, arts and in their own appearance, the Japanese quickly assimilated Western ways.

With the aquisition of so many Western styles and ideas, came a stern backlash from those loyal to traditional Japan. These ardent nationalists denounced what they saw as ludicrous attempts to imitate the West and the undiscerning acceptance of all things Western, considering this to be insulting to the national character.

The works of art in this exhibition, particularly the woodblock prints, illustrate both the traditional styles that struggled to survive as well the new innovative ideas which represent a Western taste and influence in clothing, architecture, newspapers, transportation, and war. During the Meiji period two significant wars were fought: one against China in 1894-95 and the other against Russia in 1904-05. A huge number of woodblock prints were produced, which glorified Japan’s military victories. In addition to the woodblock prints, the exhibition features paintings, ceramics, ivory carvings, cloisonn?, metalworks and lacquerwares.

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