Although much has been written about the influence of Japan on Western design movements (the Aesthetic Movement. Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau), far less is known of Western influence on Japan. Yet, from about 1900 to the 1910s, Japanese designers, educators, architects, and craftspeople launched a "new style" of art and craft by incorporating elements from French Art Nouveau, the Vienna Secession, and the Glasgow School into traditional Japanese arts. In a later phase, in the 1920s and '30s, Japanese artists instead drew on the ideals and philosophy of John Ruskin and William Morris to create their own response to the modern world. This utopian phase of the Japanese Arts and Crafts Movement will be explored in the next issue of Style 1900. For now, we focus on the initial blending of Western theatre with traditional craft that first enlivened Japanese decorative arts, architecture, and graphic arts just after the turn of the century.
Japan Presents Herself to the West through Craft
A century and a half ago, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry led an American fleet into Tokyo Bay, prompting Japan to end some two hundred years of self-imposed isolation. The west had first "discovered" Japan in 1543 when a Portuguese ship, blown off course en route to Macao, landed on the islands. Trade developed with Spain, Portugal and Holland until the 1630s, when, fearing the destabilizing spread of Christianity, Japanese rulers closed the country to outside contact save for a limited number of Dutch ships, permitted to sail only into Nagasaki harbor.
The ensuing two centuries of isolation were a time of peace and great artistic achievement for Japan, when crafts such as lacquering and cloisonne attained heights unimaginable in the West.
Thrust again onto the world stage in the 1850s, and without mechanized factories, railroads, and the like, Japan found itself unable to compete commercially with industrialized nations. Drawing upon the nation's creative strengths, the government encouraged artisans to produce hand-crafted export goods of stunning technical quality, which were showcased at world's fairs, such as those in Vienna (1873), Paris (1867, 1878, 1889), Philadelphia (1876), and Chicago (1893). Any search for new forms of expression became secondary to the goal of attaining extraordinary heights of perfection in workmanship. One lacquered cabinet, for example, took ten men seven years to complete.
Time for Change: The Drive for a "New Style"
During the reign of the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912), Japan not only worked to gain status abroad; it also set out to modernize at home. By the turn of the century, elite males had rejected traditional Japanese garb for European-style suits and hats. A Prussian-type constitution was adopted, a British-style Parliament was convened, and education for the entire population became compulsory. A new, Western-style military proved itself with victories over Russia in 1905.
In artistic circles, however, dissatisfaction grew with the Meiji concentration on dazzling heights of craftsmanship. Some artists began to look for a different approach, one based less upon masterful technique and more upon a new aesthetic that would capture the essence of modern Japan.
Asai Chu Brings the "New Style" to the Decorative Arts
This call for a new style gained momentum around 1900, when Asai Chu (1856-1907), a prominent Japanese artist and art educator, brought new ideas home front the great Exposition Universelle in Paris. This world's fair went down in history as an international showcase for European Art Nouveau--in a range of forms, from the sinuous, nature-inspired curves preferred by the French, to the abstract florals and attentuated lines of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School, to the geometric grid patterns of the Vienna Secessionists. All Art Nouveau designers, however, held a common goal: to reject stale reproductions of historic styles and instead find an expression that would embody the modern era in a particular country. On his return from Paris Asai raised similar questions in a Japanese context: where should Japan turn to this new century and what in the arts and crafts was appropriate for the Japanese of his generation?
For Asai the answer lay in coupling the modern European look with a Japanese sensibility--an approach that was sometimes labeled aru-nubo (a transliteration of the term "Art Nouveau") or shin-bejulsu ("New Art"). By the early twentieth century, the mood in Japan had begun to shift from the social and political sternness of the Meiji period (1868-1912) to the cultural exuberance that would exemplify the reign of the emperor Taisho (1912-1925).
Artists and intellectuals were becoming interested in socialism and romantic literature; the ideal of democracy was spreading. The time was ripe for change when Asai became the first instructor of design at the newly founded Kyoto Institute of Technology, one of Japan's first schools to teach design as well as craft. Asai and his colleagues set out to train "men who can give fresh new approaches" to the Japanese craft world. The curriculum included design theory, instruction in machining, weaving, and textile-dying, and the practical, hands-on application of design to pottery, fabrics, architecture, interior furnishings, and woodwork. Craft skills remained important, but the pursuit of vitality in style became important, too; in fact, the concept of zuan ("design") entered the Japanese language for the first time at this period.
The objects that Asai created at the Kyoto Institute were heavily influenced by what he had seen in France. One piece still on display at the Institute is a vase he decorated in a bold patterning of plum tree trunks against a blue background. Like so much of his oeuvre, it recalls French Art Nouveau, but the simplicity, the subject matter, and the strong silhouetting all refer to the work of earlier Japanese masters. Working primarily in pottery decoration and designing for tiles, lacquer ware, and embroidery, Asai and his associates often coupled the modern European aesthetic with the bold golds and reds of Japanese lacquer and a traditionally whimsical treatment of subject matter.
"New Style" Experiments in Architecture
Architect Takeda Goichi (1872-1938), Asai's colleague at the Institute, also traveled to Europe. In 1902 he studied in England at the Camden School of Art and Science, where he was immersed in the work of contemporary British designers. During his stay, he produced a series of watercolor designs for interiors incorporating elements from the work of Mackintosh, as well as cabinet and wallpaper designs after Arts and Crafts designer C.F.A. Voysey. (1)
Upon his return to Japan, Takeda continued designing in this Mackintosh-and-Art-Nouveau-inspired idiom, producing a number of residences. Sadly, only a few of these remain. Especially noteworthy was the Fukushima Residence (no longer extant), designed in 1905 for a trading merchant. One would have entered this Secession/ Glasgow-style manor through an iron gate shaped like a spider. The exterior wall was colored a rich burgundy, set off by stained glass windows. Inside, curtains with abstract floral patterns were used, some of" the furniture was painted white a la Mackintosh, and even the ceilings and walls were decorated with Secession/ Mackintosh-inspired geometric patterns.
Architects unconnected with the Kyoto Institute also experimented with the New Style, especially in domestic work. Part of their efforts involved merging the living patterns of the East and me West--for instance, advocating the use of chairs instead of kneeling on mats on the floor and providing house plans with Western-type kitchens and living rooms. Stylistically, these architects incorporated elements from European Art Nouveau and Secession buildings, and even drew upon the American bungalow. One company--still in existence today actually called themselves Amerika-ya ("The American House") and offered bungalow kits imported from Seattle, Later the firm built bungalows from their own designs, as well as homes suited to a more traditional Japanese lifestyle.
Graphic Art Embraces the New Style
Another locale for the development of the New Style was Tokyo, then fast becoming a vibrant center of consumer culture as well as of publishing and the graphic arts. Inaugurated in 1900, the Tokyo-based literary magazine Myojo followed in the tracks of Western publications such as The Studio, Art Decoratif, and Jugend by commissioning covers from artists eager to work in a modern idiom. The first issue featured a design by Ichijo Naomi or a Japanese woman with flowing hair holding a lily, executed in the Art Nouveau style of European poster artist Alphonse Mucha.
When Natsume Soseki, one of Japan's greatest novelists. returned home from a visit to England in 1902, he showed examples of Western work to the young artist Hashiguchi Goyo (1881-1921), who went on to design New Style covers for Soseki's books. Other artists, among them Fujishima Takeji 1867-1943) and Sugiura Hisui (1876-1965), produced magazine illustrations, book covers and posters that helped to spread the new Western-influenced aesthetic to the public.
The spirit of the Taisho era was best personified by Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934). A self-taught designer and illustrator, his series of languid "Yumeji-women" art still popular today. Like other artists, he clipped graphics from Studio and Jugend for inspiration, but he also studied Edo--period woodblock prints, developing a style that successfully melded the Western with the Japanese. Beginning his career in Tokyo in 1901 at age eighteen, Yumeji bridled at his rejection from government-sponsored exhibitions. His fame grew due to the "alternative" shows that he staged near the official ones. Minatoya, a small shop tsar he opened with his wife further boosted his popularity, especially among the fashion conscious young women who avidly purchased his New Style handkerchiefs, notepads, envelopes, woodblock-printed cards kimono accessories, and dolls.
The Decline of the New Style; Tastes Change; Utopian Idealism Grows
In the late 1920s, Yumeji's popularity declined rapidly because of changing tastes and public disapproval of his somewhat decadent lifestyle. In 1930, near the end of his life, he planned to start the Harunasan-Commercial Design Study Center, a school where design and craft could be taught on a farm that would provide the community with fresh produce. It was an idealistic project much like Gustav Stickley's vision for Craftsman Farms, and, as with Stickley's endeavor, it never materialized. Nonetheless, Yumeji's utopian idea was shared by other Japanese of the period, propelling a series of philosophical craft and education movements that were based less on outward style and more upon Ruskinian and Morrisian idealism. This Mingei or "folk-craft" movement, where craft became a vision for a better way of life, will be explored in the next issue of Style 1900.