When Hamada Shoji, a leading figure in the mingei movement of Japanese folk arts and crafts, first met the British potter Bernard Leach in Tokyo, the two fired up an incredibly close friendship. In 1920, they travelled together from Japan to the UK, constructing a climbing kiln and workshop in St Ives, Cornwall. Now infamous, the Leach Pottery became the home of the British studio pottery movement, celebrated in the collections of the V&A and Whitechapel Gallery.
So when Queen Elizabeth II swapped a Shoji bowl for a Leach plate on her 1975 state visit, the first such reigning British monarch to visit Japan, she was paying homage to a long history of cultural exchange – and likely hoping for similarly close diplomatic relations too.
Since the suit of samurai armour gifted to James I in 1613, weapons, maps, and woodblock prints have all passed between these two ‘Island Empires’ of East and West. Strikingly curated in the dark, cavernous corners of the Queen’s Gallery, these artefacts of war could tell a story of two countries in competition or conflict.
But Japan: Courts and Culture reveals the productive nature of these 350 years of diplomatic, artistic and cultural exchange. As the first royal-imperial exhibition of its kind, half of these objects have never seen public display, and have alternative histories to tell.
Following from the work of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, samurai culture is reassessed as the arts of peace, as well as war. We see suits of armour produced solely for seasonal display in tokonama alcoves, and knives made by former metalworkers seeking to adapt their trade for peacetime markets.
Challenging the ‘sakoku’ stereotype of the closed-off island country, these objects offer material proof of Japan’s enduring presence in Europe. As civil war in China stalled industrial production in the nineteenth century, Western traders pivoted to Japan to meet their high demand for porcelain. We see the two-way trade flows, and how Japanese artists adapted designs to the tastes of their new nanban, so-called ‘southern barbarian’, customers. We also see European imitations and interpretations, with French bronze mounts plonked onto imari ware porcelains to make them fit fragrant pot-pourri.
By sourcing objects through Dutch and Chinese traders, and the 1867 Paris Exhibition, royal collectors like Mary II and George IV circumvented tough trade restrictions. As Japan gradually opened in the 1850s and 1860s, these figures had already cast an orientalist pattern of collection for their likes of Mary, Queen Consort of George V to follow – cutting out the middlemen at the first joint Japan-Britain Exhibition in 1910, or shopping at Yamanako and Co. on Bond Street.
Courts and Culture pays great attention to traditional craft, often influenced by China, and how it is incorporated into contemporary art. Knobbled cast iron vases are offered up as embodiments as wabi sabi, the Japanese idea of ‘rustic simplicity’, or acceptance of the imperfect and transient nature of life.
Narrated by curator Rachel Peat and, crucially, Japanese artists themselves, the exhibition’s accompanying multimedia guide enables us to access these allusive meanings. Cheeky peaches and pines that pepper formal porcelains are exposed as Chinese puns which promise longevity; bamboo sticks as symbols of resilience, which bend, but never break, in the wind.
International audio and video transport us from the confines of Queen’s Gallery. Japanese artists themselves demonstrate the year-long process of applying 20 preparatory layers of lacquer (urushi), and the painstaking detail of enamelling (shippo) – the latter showing skill that far surpasses Western European cloisonnism.
Many of the objects reinforce the dominant narrative of Japanese modernisation through Western imitation, from the Meiji and Showa courts adopting French fashions, to the Osaka Mint honours system – perceived as signs of modernity, and perhaps democratic legitimacy.
Reverse relations are more voyeuristic, reinforcing the tropes of Japonisme. Prince George of Wales’ diaries from his navel cadet training in Japan detail such ‘adventures’ as sampling chopsticks and sitting for a traditional dragon and tiger tattoo.
Curated in chronological order, it is only in the final rooms of contemporary relations that we catch Japanese gazes on the West, and more women. Urushibara Mokuchu’s 1930s floral woodblock prints are staged in conversation with the Scottish artist Elizabeth Keith, exposing their views of each others’ cultures.
It is surprising, then, that the landscapes of Japan and Britain are shown in opposition, with Yoshida Horisho’s Mount Fuji from Miho (1935) aside Yoshio Markino’s Westminster. These woodblock prints are claimed as some of the the first ‘hybrid’ artworks, combining the traditional Japanese form with ‘Western’ artistic perspective, muted colours, and the city’s pollution as a visual filter, much like Whistler or Monet.
Yet neither Markino’s industrial angst nor ‘hybrid’ artistic approach was particularly new. It’s already there in the sakoku-era prints of centuries past – take Hokusai, who is everywhere and nowhere in this exhibition.
We do see how Japanese artists appropriate different artistic techniques, modernising in their own fashion rather than simply following the West. Okamoto Toyo’s Spring Beauty of Toyo (c. 1925-1929), a folding screen of photographs, immortalises the transient beauty of the cherry blossom. Vast embroideries document dark and fearful landscapes in minute detail – ambiguous reflections of the traditional Japanese respect for nature, or perhaps the sublime in European Romanticism.
Tucked behind a door in the corner of the space lies the exhibition’s final room – a model replica of how Japanese objects were displayed in the West before the 1900s. We see how avid collectors like Queen Charlotte clubbed together Chinese (chinoiserie) and Japanese artefacts in a totalising orientalism or exoticisation of the East. This vital space, which contextualises why we need this exhibition now, is perhaps the Courts and Culture’s most important – and yet all too easy to miss.
Perhaps the dense, historical curation distracts from the artworks themselves. Yet the very need for such basic information reveals our comparative ignorance of East Asian histories in British institutions. By exposing exchanges, Courts and Culture implies that these Japanese stories are really ours too.
With grateful thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review: Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.