The Genius of Japan
Western exposure to the arts of Japan in the 19th century ignited a profound respect among European artists and designers, transforming forever the art of goldsmiths and jewellers
Katherine Purcell, Friday, 1st April 2011
Deeply entrenched in decades of historicism, European decorative artists were excited and inspired by the Japanese works of art assembled by Alcock. Totalling 600 pieces, these included bronzes, ceramics, textiles, prints, books, and works in lacquer and metal. It seemed that an artistic sensibility imbued every object, from modest baskets, to extraordinary swords, to carved ivory toggles known as netsuke.4 They were unlike anything Westerners had ever encountered, an aesthetic revelation: the public and the art world were overwhelmed.
The influence of Japan has been the subject of several exhibitions in the past.5 The work of goldsmiths has been displayed in sections devoted to decorative arts, but only as a small element of the wider perspective that has included paintings, etchings, lithographs, prints, ceramics, porcelain, textiles and furniture. The forthcoming exhibition at Wartski, London, is entirely devoted to Western jewellery and goldsmiths’ work inspired by Japanese works of art, spanning the years 1867–1917.
The word Japonisme was coined by the French collector and art critic Philippe Burty (1830–90) in a series of articles published in La Renaissance littéraire et artistique in May 1872.6 Burty, a promoter of Japanese art and culture, played an influential role in the development of Japonisme in France and wrote extensively on the subject. In a later article published in England, Burty defined Japonisme as ‘the study of the art and genius of Japan’.7 Considering the Japanese to be aesthetically superior to the French, his perceptive writings encompassed all aspects of their culture including art.
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