The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum is the first museum in Japan to take as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonné, maki-e lacquerware and Kyoto Satsuma ware artworks of the late Edo and Meiji period.
Metalworking, cloisonné enameling, and lacquering are technologies that were born in the various countries along the Silk Road, but maki-e lacquerware and the so-called “wireless” cloisonné especially developed so significantly in Japan as to become entirely new, uniquely Japanese techniques. These technologies were frequently used for decorative purposes in sword fittings, incense utensils, and the like, and were brought from the end of the Edo period through the early years of Meiji to a very high level of development. Afterwards, however, for a number of reasons that included the official abolishment of the wearing of swords and the westernization of Japanese daily life, they suffered a rapid decline.
If the artworks exhibited here represent work produced by officially appointed Imperial Artists, they have come as well from the hands of unknowns. Each of the works, however, is the creation of a subtle and thoroughly refined artistic sensibility. Our greatest hope is that this exhibition will result not only in the proper artistic reevaluation of Japanese metalworking, cloisonné enameling, and maki-e lacquerware, but also that in the future, works artistically and technically superior to these magnificent late Edo and Meiji specimens might be produced.
Message from the Museum Director, Masayuki Murata
Fascinated by Meiji Art
The Road to Establishing the Museum
I myself first discovered Meiji art in late-1980 in New York City. I was then working at a company and on my way home from a business trip when I happened on an antique mall and found my eyes riveted to the window display of a store. Arranged in the window were beautiful inro pillboxes made in the late Edo and Meiji periods. As I entered the shop, my eye was caught by the many beautiful and elaborate Meiji art objects, the like of which I had never seen before. Taken with their beauty, I forgot myself for a moment and gazed in rapt attention before realizing that I had already bought three of the inro pillboxes. I will never forget the excitement I felt that day. Back at my hotel, I repeatedly took out the inro pillboxes and gazed admiringly at them. I had never known art objects could be so beautiful and elaborate.
Since then, I have regularly bought art objects from the late Edo to Meiji periods whenever I visit New York or London. I also began gathering catalogues from auction companies such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and started to bid successfully through brochures. As I collected, I noticed that not only were there no fine art shops in Japan that dealt with the late Edo-Meiji period art objects but neither was there even one domestic museum that seriously pursued regular displays of objects from that era. Since Meiji, Japan has rapidly incorporated Western cultural values into its own, and even westernized its lifestyle. Interest among the Japanese in late Edo and Meiji art waned as Impressionist paintings and Western antiques grew more popular. Even those who had a taste for Meiji art did not value it as highly as did Westerners; therefore, when masterpieces appeared on the market, they invariably made their way abroad. Only bric-a-brac remained in Japan as a result of this long-run phenomenon that started in Meiji, and the value of late Edo-Meiji art objects continued to decrease. In Western museums and auctions, however, the most popular Japanese artworks are late Edo and Meiji era artistic crafts like ukiyoe and ceramics, in great contrast to the situation in Japan.
Meanwhile, my collection grew to the extent that I was running out of storage space. My company job kept me busy, leaving me barely any time to take a leisurely look at my various purchases. Then the inspiration came to me to build an art museum to house and display Meiji era art works, and so I resigned from my company and established this museum in 2000.
What Is So Good about Meiji Art?
Technically and aesthetically, there is no period that matches the high standard of the Late Edo-Meiji periods. In the Edo period the houses of the shogunate and daimyo employed makie artisans and metalsmiths who made furniture and weapons. During this long time of peace, elaborate, high-quality makie was applied to wedding trousseau furniture, and sword fittings more decorative than practical were in high demand. Merchant townsmen consolidated power in the meantime and came to demand stylish inro, sword fittings, and smoking implements. Metal workers and makie craftsmen strove to improve their techniques and be ever more creative in their designs in order to match rising demand as well as satisfy steady patrons.
As Japan’s feudal society collapsed at the time of the Meiji Restoration, craftsmen were temporarily deprived of domestic market demand; therefore, the government assigned artists to produce work for export as part of an industrial promotion policy meant both to manage unemployment and to acquire foreign currency. The majority of works created catered largely to Western tastes and had, it must be admitted, little artistic value. Appearing at this time as well, however, were many fresh new works inspired by European and American influences. There were also sophisticated and artistically superior works made by first-rate artists, like the imperial artisans, with an eye to domestic demand. As time passed, Japanese tastes continued to tilt towards Western culture while domestic demand for makie and metalwork declined, and this situation has continued to the present.
The Passion Behind the Museum
We currently house works from the Imperial Household Agency, top quality works intended for domestic connoisseurs, as well those of high artistic value targeted for the foreign market. If we were to classify the collection by artistic technique, it would include metalworks, lacquerware, cloisonné ware, Kyoto Satsuma ware, and embroidered fine art. We possess items with various functions such as furniture, sword fittings and ornaments. Most works are from the Meiji period, though we also display works from the Late Edo and Taisho periods. Whatever the genre, we house works that are meticulously detailed, subtle, and technically refined, qualities that would be hard to replicate in the present day. The displays are accompanied by explanatory panels that detail the artistic techniques, tools, and materials as well as samples of the working processes that created the items, which we hope will have the beneficial effect of spreading knowledge about the glamorous art of the Late Edo-Meiji era.
My dream is to see a day when contemporarily produced craftworks surpass the artistic quality of those of Meiji. And I hope those who aspire to produce such works will one day visit my museum.
Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum Director