What is so special about the eleventh day of April? A hint. It’s not the eleventh of April this year I’m referring to.
It’s the eleventh day of April 1868. Ring any bells? Probably not — unless you live in Japan. For on the eleventh of April 1868 the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate was brought to a close with the restoration of the Emperor Meiji.
Now, before you hit the delete button and move on to another email, consider this. The Meiji restoration opened Japan up to the west after nearly 300 years of isolation, and made all things Japanese soar in popularity. Japanese design, arts and crafts swept away traditional ideas and thoughts, becoming highly influential on the French Impressionists, and through that artists from around the world who flocked to study in Paris were swept along on the crest of the new wave too.
Artists such as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Van Gogh (who even drew with a reed pen and who amassed a collection of over 200 Japanese prints, making numerous copies after the Japanese artist Hiroshige), Beardsley, Klimt and many others were inspired by Japanese art, including some of the painters who became known as the Glasgow Boys, and Alexander Reid.
The American artist James McNeill Whistler was obsessed by blue and white china and by the art of Japan.
Some of his earlier paintings included Japanese props such as fans, vases and kimonos, but the influence of Japanese prints by Hiroshige and other Japanese artists is most apparent in the paintings known as his Nocturnes, which incorporate elements of Japanese spatial design, asymmetrical balance and a harmony of colour and form. In his desire to rid his art of narrative content, formal design took precedence over subject matter, his painting in close subtle tones, pared back until almost abstract, rendered the works almost incomprehensible to a public used to detailed Victorian paintings.
Louis Comfort Tiffany, glassmaker amongst other things, couldn’t wait to get his hands on samples of Japanese goods from Christopher Dresser, a lecturer in botany and art botany and one of the first independent industrial designers. He championed design reform while embracing modern manufacturing in the development of wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, glass, furniture and metalware. He was the first European designer to be commissioned to visit Japan, exploring craft and manufacturing techniques for the UK government. Dresser’s fascinating little book, Japan: It’s architecture, art, and art manufactures, published in 1882, can be downloaded from Amazon and other sites and is well worth a browse. Gardeners especially may glean ideas for new attractions in their gardens.
My fascination with this event came through research I did on Alexander Reid, the Scottish art dealer who was friendly with Vincent van Gogh, worked in Goupil’s gallery beside his brother Theo, and lodged for a while with both in Rue Lepic, Montmartre, in Paris. Vincent’s brother Theo had represented the art dealer Goupil at the 1878 Worlds Fair at which there was an explosion of works from Japan.
Siegfried Bing, French print seller, dealer, art patron, avid collector of all things Japanese was said to have exquisite taste and beautiful manners, though he obsessively shunned publicity. His first shop opened in time for the World’s Fair, with a second opening in 1880 on his return from a visit to Japan, selling old as well as contemporary Japanese objects. ‘Le japon artistique’ the revolutionary magazine on Japanese art was published by him monthly in France, America and the UK between 1888 and 1891 and was avidly read by Vincent van Gogh.
During the 1880s Bing vigorously promoted Japanese art in Europe and America. Alex Reid bought prints from his Paris shop, which by 1895 had been transformed into the first of his Salons de L’Art Nouveau, indicative of a fusion of Japanese and Western art that heralded a new artistic vision (and name) in the decorative arts. Bing was on a mission to banish ugliness in people’s surroundings, advocating that even everyday, utilitarian objects should have beauty and charm.
Scottish shipbuilders built vessels for Japan, Robert Louis Stevenson’s family firm built navigation lights for their island shores, and Thomas Blake Glover became known as the Scottish Samurai. Glover arrived in Nagasaki in 1859, as Japan was beginning to open up to the west, ordered ships from Scottish shipyards, traded with those he later advised, many of those who in 1868 brought about the end of the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Meiji.
Glover went on to become pivotal in the growth of Mitsubishi as an international conglomerate, founding shipyards, coal mines and breweries, becoming an adviser to the Japanese Government, viewed as one of those who laid the basis for Japan’s modern industrialisation.
Glover House in Nagasaki, with its stunning garden, attracts over two million visitors a year, Japan’s largest tourist attraction, perhaps because his affair with one of his mistresses is said to have inspired Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.
Alex Reid’s brother worked in Nagasaki shipyard on the reconstruction of the Japanese navy. This was the yard in which Glover had an interest, and which was then leased by Mitsubishi. The surviving correspondence between James and members of his family provides a fascinating insight into a country coming to terms with the modern world and with the West.