Meiji Modern Design to be Sold at Bonhams

Japan, by nature an extremely conservative country, was ruled for centuries by a warrior caste – the Samurai – who supported a military government presided over by the Shogun, a word immortalized by James Clavell’s novel. Whilst the Japanese Emperors resided in Kyoto, wielding a nominal authority, the Shogun held the reins of real power. Japan was closed to Western trade, with the exception of a small Dutch settlement at Deshima Island near Nagasaki. In the middle of the 19th century, an era of change dawned, first in nbsp; 1854, when Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) commander of the United States naval forces in the China seas, successfully concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa with the Tokugawa government in 1854 and then by another U.S. envoy, Townsend Harris who secured trading rights with a treaty signed in 1858. By 1867, the Bakufu [Government of the Shoguns] was dissolved and imperial rule returned. In 1876, after the enthronement of a new emperor, Japan’s 122nd, the Samurai were de-militarised and forbidden to carry swords. The Meiji period – the civil revolution known somewhat euphemistically as the ’Meiji Restoration’ – had begun.

The capital city of the new empire was chosen and renamed Tokyo. Almost overnight, Japan was transformed. She embraced the fashions and practices of Western Europe and America, throwing open her doors to foreigners [the gaijin] for the first time. However, Japanese swordsmiths, armourers and sword-furniture craftsmen now found themselves redundant. As a result Japanese metalworkers re-employed their skills to exploit the new markets created by the foreigners who traded and lived in Japan.

At this time of great domestic change Japanese artists and the Meiji Government came together in an attempt to identify exactly what styles of art the Westerners demanded; Japanese artistic innovation, as with micro-electronics today, did the rest. The import of Japanese prints, bronzes and crafts into Europe had far-reaching influence for Monet, Manet, Van Gogh and Whistler. A whole genre of so-called Japonoiserie was created, highlighted recently in the film ‘Topsy Turvy’ where Gilbert’s inspiration for The Mikado’ is found when visiting an exhibition of Japanese culture. As Japanese art became fashionable, so productivity increased. Stoneware from Satsuma, silver from Yokohama, inlaid iron from Kyoto, and prints from Tokyo were all traded to both fuel, and satisfy, the new demand.

The art of the Meiji Restoration summarizes Japan’s ability to re-invent itself quickly and successfully. The feudal nature of the Shogun’s government changed overnight into a town-based commercial system with high productivity. This transition arguably determined a re-appraisal of Western art, but at the very least gave the gaijin an entirely new view of design.

Many of these extraordinary designs will be offered in Bonhams’ first-ever specialist sale devoted to ’Meiji Modern Design: Fine Later Japanese Art’. The sale at 101 New Bond Street on Wednesday 11 June will offer more than 100 lots of fine – in many cases outstanding – examples of lacquer, metalwork and ceramics. Each piece in the sale demonstrates how successfully Japanese artists made the change from a domestic to an international market.

The sale is strong in documentary objects, including a magnificent lacquer shodana (display stand for precious objects), estimated to make ?200,000-300,000. But there are fine objects at all price levels, from ?1,000 to more than ?50,000.

The shodana, manufactured by the famous Zohiko Company whose traditions date back to the famous lacquer alchemist, Nishimura Munetade (1720-73) is a masterpiece of lacquer furniture, richly decorated with themes from Japan’s Bugaku theatre. The ritual of Bugaku, which endeavored to entertain the Gods of Japan’s Shinto religion, is an unusual subject for lacquer furniture. Significantly, the principle subjects depicted are part of a 1000 year Japanese tradition; in other words the old ways of Japan were not to be forgotten with the advent of commercial wealth brought about by the new markets.

Fine lacquer is a feature of the sale. A lacquered wood okimono of Kwanyu, God of War, shows the deity standing with his typical long black beard and halberd, his gold fundame headdress and long tunic decorated in hiramakie with flowerheads, scrolling foliage, stylised clouds and roundels. It is estimated at ?7,000-10,000.

Superb metalwork from the Ozeki Kaisha is also well represented. Ozeki identified the demands of the new markets quickly and accurately. By 1870, father and son, Ozeki Yahei and Ozeki Sadajiro, had set up as dealers in metalwork, exhibiting commissioned work at Japan’s First National Industrial Exposition in 1877, where they both won prizes.

A superb pair of Ozeki Kaisha vases by Yamada Motonobu, each with long flowing neck and pierced handles, worked in soft metal, silver filigree and iroe takazogan with leaf-shaped panels depicting kacho-e and other themes on a silver ground is estimated at ?60,000-80,000.

Another superb bronze vase by Suzuki Chokichi is boldly decorated in kebori and iroe takazogan [chisel and high relief technique] with a kacho-e depicting a mallard and kingfisher flying through reeds, lotus and aquatic foliage. Suzuki Chokichi (1848-1919) created in metal what Hokusai’s 10 famous chuban of 1832 achieved on woodblock printed paper, both artists re-defining the genre of ’kacho-ga’ (bird and flower combination pictures). But while Hokusai’s work fused colour on to one dimension, Chokichi achieved the same sense of what the Heian aristocracy called awasemono (matching things) with multi-color inlay on bronze. As such, Chokichi is rightly considered as one of the Meiji period’s most advanced technicians, his apparent ease at creating both natural history and figurative sculpture continues to speak with authority. This example is estimated at ?25,000-35,000.

Another skill readily adopted by Japanese metalworkers was cloisonne ware, a method of enamel decoration of metal surfaces using metal filaments to form cloisons or miniature compartments which are filled with colored enamel, heated and polished. The sale contains a number of examples, a pair of mottled blue-ground cloisonne vases by Hayashi each worked in silver wires with a design of carp swimming beside a misty coastal landscape being estimated at ?6,000-8,000. A large cloisonne enamel dish, almost three feet (87cm) in diameter, decorated with two red-capped Manchurian cranes feeding with three game birds beside a fast-running stream in a peony and bamboo-filled landscape is estimated at ?4,000-6,000.

A number of good pieces of ivory okimono [ornamental sculpture] in the sale include a finely carved figure of a barefoot farmer with his two sons, signed Ishikawa Komei (estimate ?9,000-12,000). Another is carved as two Yamato Nadeshko, one girl holding a child whilst the other carries a hobby-horse and Hanya mask, signed Hananoriki, while a third carved as Ushiwaka, the young Minamoto no Yoshitsune during his famous encounter with Musashi-bo Benkei on the Gojo Bridge, the enormous Benkei endeavouring to brandish his naginata while wrestling with three tengu from Sojo-ga-tani (each ?8,000-12,000).

Satsuma, the stoneware named after Satsuma Province, now Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s islands, was first produced by Korean potters who established kilns there in the 16th century. It became highly prized by Western collectors. The sale includes many fine examples, notably a dish by Nakamura Baikei decorated in enamels with a busy town scene depicting an elephant beside musicians and women walking with children, travelers and Samurai. Interestingly, the base is decorated with two cartouches, each with a long inscription explaining the history of Satsuma wares. It is estimated at ?8,000-12,000 while another fine dish by the same maker, decorated with Chinese boys playing in a coastal landscape is estimated at ?6,000-8,000.

Published in: on April 29, 2003 at 1:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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