Times & Places

Japanese Art During the Meiji Period (1868-1912)

Modern Japan begins with the reign of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912; r. 1868-1912), whose name, meaning "enlightened rule," was intended to symbolize the new age. In society, the economy, and the arts, the Meiji period was a time of both upheaval and accomplishment. Modernizing its government to contend on equal terms with the major international powers, Japan adopted an imperial constitution guaranteeing freedoms previously unimaginable. This freedom, coupled with the importation of foreign ideas and technology, reversed centuries of exclusion and encouraged new art forms for the age.

The Meiji government admired Western ideas and invited foreign artists to teach at official schools to bring knowledge about European art to Japan. Seeking to project the glory of the state through the arts, the Meiji government encouraged export trade, which proved to be a source of positive publicity for the nation and revenue for the arts. Contingents of artisans attended international trade fairs popular in the West. Tourism from abroad, a new commercial phenomenon, also helped spread an awareness of Japanese culture. The imperial appointment of outstanding artists to serve the court inspired new energy in design and innovation in technique. Through these means, the government hoped to ameliorate artists' suffering, which had resulted from the termination of historic feudal support with the end of the shogunate.

The anguish and accomplishment of the arts of Meiji can be understood through a review of several outstanding genre of the period, ranging from art forms that survived the tumultuous shift to imperial rule to essentially modern arts like cloisonné. For example, hereditary lines of metalsmiths had served the samurai class, creating armor and swords with all the accompanying decorations. When the wearing of swords was suddenly forbidden, some of the metalsmiths formed studios for the production of bronze art pieces. Like other traditional artists, many were also employed to teach at government-sponsored technical institutes.

The ancient, time-consuming art of lacquer suffered a loss of historic support, which, coupled with rejection of the traditional lifestyle, caused great disruption in the field. Exports supported lacquer artisans, who found that Westernized forms of furniture, trays, compartmentalized chests, framed decorative panels, and miniature versions of virtually any object were items greatly appreciated abroad.

Traditional fine basketry blossomed during the early 19th century, in advance of the Meiji period, and experienced strong support from interest in flower arranging, which was spurred by popular literati culture. An emphasis on refined domestic activities like flower arranging and the tea ceremony ensured a continuing supply of fine Japanese basketwork, which was interrupted only by the advent of World War II.

A final example is cloisonné. The technique was considered a minor decorative art until artisans became acquainted with European methods and materials during the decades immediately prior to the Meiji period; however, under the aegis of Meiji period modernism, this new technique proved a fertile means of expressing a traditional art form in a modern context. The technique fit the Meiji spirit perhaps better than any other artistic medium, and cloisonné artists distilled to elegant perfection an imperial style emblematic of the new age.

Meiji artists pursued technical and mechanical elaboration, often surpassing the limitations of a technique's original process. In the case of the cloisonné, for example, artisans transformed the technique of using wire cloisons to separate enamel designs on a metal base into a new and different art form that, though called "wireless cloisonné," resembled cloisonné only in the broadest definition. The wireless treatment permitted artists great freedom with designs, which became extremely painterly, incorporating delicate nuances of shading and texture. Eventually, the metal body itself was dissolved, creating something called plique-à-jour, a type of translucent colored enamel that emphasized technical virtuosity, perhaps to the exclusion of aesthetic merit.

Adapted from

  • L. Yockel, "Japanese Art During the Meiji Period (1868-1912)," DMA gallery text.

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