The Japanese treasures that comprise this exhibition - enamel and porcelain vases, bronze sculptures, and other decorative objects, on display in Israel for the first time - are samples of the legacy of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The Meiji (literally, "Enlightened Rule") represented a revolutionary chapter in the history of Japan, insofar as it ushered in Japan's modern era. The exhibition Splendors of Imperial Japan features works of art from the Khalili Collection which reflect a blending of East and West; while incorporating classical Japanese motifs and traditional techniques, they were made to appeal to the love of opulence then prevalent in the West. In the forty-four years of Meiji rule, Japanese craftsmanship reached levels of perfection previously unknown, and never equaled since.


2.Document box decorated with
wisteria; enamel

3. Vase with humorous depictions of
animals; Satsuma; earthenware,
painted and gilded

In the preceding seven hundred years, Japan was ruled by the military. The shogun served as the head of state, and under him, the feudal lords (later known as the daimyo) governed, each in his own province, with the aid of an army of samurai. The emperor, who resided in Kyoto, was essentially a figurehead who lacked any political power. During the final 250 years of this period, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family. In order to consolidate and stabilize its reign, the Tokugawa divided the people into classes - samurai, peasants, craftsmen, and merchants - and led the country into self-imposed isolation. At first, restrictions were placed on foreign trade. Shortly thereafter, foreign seafarers, merchants, and Christian missionaries were expelled. At one point, the Japanese were even prohibited from leaving their country.


7. Incense burner in the shape of
a cockerel on a drum
Bronze with gold and silver

8. Vase with cranes; enamel

12. Vase with floral design
Translucent enamels

The peace and stability achieved during the Tokugawa period provided fertile conditions for the cultivation of the traditional forms of Japanese art, such as the tea ceremony, ink painting, and the Kabuki theater. But towards the end of the eighteenth century, the regime's policies began to be challenged, and the first cracks appeared in the walls. By the early nineteenth century, there were voices in Japan calling for liberation from the Tokugawa. In 1853, against the backdrop of an increased Western presence in East Asia, an American fleet under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, emissary of the president of the United States, reached the shores of Japan near the Japanese capital city of Edo (today Tokyo). A request was delivered from the American president: Japan should open its doors and normalize relations with the Western world. The regime gave in, and within a short period of time, a trade and friendship agreement was signed with the United States. This was closely followed by similar agreements with most of the European powers.

The opening of Japan's gates to the West triggered dramatic changes, and from that point onward, the goal of molding the country into a modern state was regarded as the highest priority. The era of the shoguns had ended, and the emperor became the head of state; Shintoism, wherein the emperor is regarded as a demigod, replaced Buddhism as the state religion, and gave legitimacy to the emperor's supreme authority. The rigid division of the population into classes was abolished, and with this, the samurai class, which had ruled Japan since the twelfth century, ceased to exist; Western knowledge and customs were embraced; and even styles of dress, footwear, and hairdo were Westernized: the kimono, wooden clogs, and the traditional samurai hairdo were replaced by Western garments, leather shoes, and modern hairstyles. Within a short time, a feudal society was transformed; having adopted Western science and technology, Japan became a modern nation and a world power.

In the course of this revolution, Japanese art gained prominence, both as a means of generating income, and as a means of advancing Japan’s standing in Western eyes. Many craftsmen – particularly those who produced swords and their metal accessories – had been left unemployed following the abolition of the samurai class. Presently, with the encouragement of the imperial court, many workshops began to look towards international markets, reshaping skills in order to produce a form of decorative art that catered to Western tastes while using age-old Japanese techniques (fig.1).Themost skilled craftsmen would attain the coveted title of “Craftsman in the Service of the Emperor,” and produce objects to be used or displayed in the imperial court, or be presented as gifts in the name of the emperor (fig.2).The gilded ceramics of Satsuma (fig.3),the metal and enamel objects produced in the leading workshops of Kyoto and Nagoya, and the works of art created in the Shibayama style (fig.4)–a technique in which semiprecious stones are inlaid into decorative objects made of ivory or lacquer – were marketed in huge quantities in order to keep up with the spiraling demand. Some 30,000 artifacts of this sort were put on display by the Japanese government at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Thanks to this international trade fair and others like it, demand for Japanese works increased dramatically, and in America and Europe, Japanese art became the latest craze.

Artwork produced for Western markets tended to be more decorative than functional. Fashioned in a style that was meant to appeal to Victorian tastes, it was saturated with details, and as such, stood in sharp contrast to the minimalist nature of the traditional Japanese sense of aesthetics. The superb technical abilities characteristic of Japan’s artisans – who could carve a life-like creature on the surface of an iron bowl (fig.5), skillfully blend bronze with gold and silver, and ivory or lacquer with semiprecious stones (figs.6and7),and create delicate designs in enamel (fig.8)–resulted in the creation of artwork of the highest quality. All these works – from the minutest to the grandest – reflected along standing Japanese tradition of painstaking attention to each and every detail.

The motifs which appear in these creations were derived from various sources. Some were taken from the bountiful treasury of Japanese and Chinese mythology, legend, religion, and history, whereas others depicted fauna and flora(figs.8and9).Full-sized image sofsamurai – bedecked in armor and with spear in hand, glorifying the tradition of the ancient warriors – were produced to meet the demands of Western buyers who marveled at this type of exotica that was so distinctly Japanese (fig.10).

Many objects were inspired by Buddhism, for instance, depictions (here fashioned in gold and silver) of elephants, dragons, and other creatures associated with the life story of the Buddha (fig.11).The use of imagery based on Chinese gods is evidence of the powerful influence that Chinese tradition exerted on the culture of Japan. Furthermore, it shows just how capable the Japanese were of absorbing foreign influences while infusing their subject matter with a distinctly Japanese character.

Other works, characterized by wave and feather patterns and floral motifs, were inspired by artnouveau, a style that was just developing in the Western world at that time (fig.12).

A fascinating contrast between works created for the West and those made for the discerning Japanese upper class can be seen in the lacquer objects in this exhibition. The lavish and colorful Shibayama inlays in lacquer appealed to the Western tastes of the time. These are juxtaposed with the minimalist and elegant lacquer utensils of Shibata Zeshin, greatest of the lacquer masters and bearer of the title “Craftsman in the Service of the Emperor.” Zeshin and his successors decorated cabinets, desks, and boxes with sophisticated designs featuring Japanese landscapes, plants, and still lifes (fig.13).

The decline of Meiji art began around the end of the nineteenth century, when ornate styles of art started to give way, in the West, to the more subdued modernist style, and consequently, Japanese decorative art began to lose its appeal.

The Collector
Professor Nasser D. Khalili is an internationally renowned scholar, collector, and philanthropist. Born in Iran, he now resides in London.

Prof. Khalili has contributed greatly to research in the field of Islamic art, and he is the co-founder and chairman of the Maimonides Foundation, whose goal is to promote peace and understanding between Muslims and Jews. In 1996, he was officially honored with the title of Trustee of the City of Jerusalem for his pursuit of "culture and peace among nations."
Since 1970, under the auspices of the Khalili Family Trust, Prof. Khalili has worked tirelessly to assemble unique art collections in a broad range of fields. In addition to his comprehensive collection representing the arts of the Islamic world, his treasury includes collections of Japanese, Indian, Swedish, and Spanish art. All these are being presented in a series of publications and exhibitions which have significantly enhanced our understanding in these areas. Thanks to his keen judgment, Prof. Khalili has successfully brought attention to artistic periods and styles that were previously unfamiliar to the general public, and his outstanding collection of Meiji art is a fine example of his efforts in this regard.


1.Vase decorated with autumnal fruits
Bronze with gold and silver inlay


4. Tray, blind people crossing a river
Wood with gold lacquer and
shell and ivory inlay


5.Incense burner with carp
and turtle; iron


6. Egg-shaped vessel and lid
Silver with gold and enamel decoration


9.Incense burner in the shape of a hawk
Silver and gold; lacquer stand


10. Samurai figure
Bronze with gold
details


11. Incense burner in the
shape of an elephant
Silver, gold, and semiprecious
stones; crystal ball


13.Writing box with depiction of court
ox-carriage
Wood with red and gold lacquer

The exhibition was made possible by the Estate of Dorothea Gould-Guttman, Montreal and Zurich, and the donors to the Israel Museum's 2004 Exhibition Fund: Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond J. Learsy, Aspen, Colorado; Hanno D. Mott, New York; and the Nash Family Foundation, New York.

Curator: Rebecca Bitterman
Assistant curator: Etty Glass-Gissis
Exhibition design: Halina Hamou


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