When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into lower Edo Bay (now Tokyo) in 1853 with his sooty ships, smokestacks gushing black fumes, and strange-looking gaijin (foreigners) gawking and waving, the course of Western art was forever altered. Purposefully dropping anchor to negotiate commercial and diplomatic treaty concessions for the United States, Perry's delegation set off a chain of extraordinary events and a fusion of cultures that continue to influence the West to this day.The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' second exhibition at Wells Fargo Center (the former Norwest Center) in downtown Minneapolis opens October 10, 2000. Titled "Japonisme: A Synthesis in Modernity 1880-1920," the show documents the "art of influence (East on West)" in modernist design. Comprising works in various media drawn from the Institute's Norwest Modernism Collection and related holdings, "Japonisme" will be on view through September 2001. A subsequent exhibition in this two-part series will examine the reverse influence—West on East. At the very time Japan's handiwork was having its refreshing effect in the West, Japan itself was rapidly turning away from its old ways, and eagerly moving toward the assembly-line production that had wrought devastation on the studios of European artisans at the start of the Industrial Age.Few civilizations, eastern or western, attained a greater refinement in the decorative arts than Edo Japan (1615-1868). Ceramics, lacquerware, and textiles were brought to an extraordinary level of aesthetic refinement by artisans whose collective skills have seldom, if ever, been surpassed, in Japan or anywhere else. Edo artists and patrons loved virtuosity in all media, but there was no hierarchy of art and craft—a crucial element of the modernism movement. It was the fine work of the Edo period in particular that was to play a powerful role in what we now call Modernism.In Europe, a longstanding fascination with exoticism, particularly Japanese (called "japonisme"), Chinese ("chinoiserie") and Islamic art and culture, had existed before Japan instituted its open-door policy after two centuries of self-imposed inaccessibility. It was only in the latter third of the nineteenth century that a genuine appreciation for the essence of Japanese arts and handicrafts began to be fully understood and assimilated in the West. Feats of patience, concentration, and skill; sublime craftsmanship; a reverence for natural flora and fauna; reductivism; ornamental patterning; stylized elements; asymmetry; vertical, truncated, and composite formats; strong diagonals; and overall grace of form were among the many qualities readily identified with Japanese art.By the turn of the century, Japanese culture had become a key ingredient in the nurturing of three international design movements, all of them simultaneously influencing one another: the Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1915), Art Nouveau (1880-1910), and the Wiener Werkstätte (1903-1933). This cross-fertilization occurred within a relatively brief period, some forty years at most. Major cities were closely identified with each movement: London, Glasgow, Chicago, Paris, Nancy, and Vienna. Each played a crucial role in the style that became known as Japonisme. Widely acknowledged today, this cultural tidal wave likewise churned up those modernist movements—the Nabis, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and Symbolism—that redefined the boundaries of twentieth-century art.If the Modernism credo was change, it's difficult to imagine its advance elite would have been nearly as effective without the rich, potent elixir of Japonisme.David Ryan is Adjunct Curator of Design at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Japonisme: A Synthesis in Modernity 1880-1920
October 10, 2000-September 21, 2001
Wells Fargo Center, Sixth and Marquette, Minneapolis
Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.Related ImagesJosef Hoffmann, designer
Austrian, 20th century
Table, about 1903-04
The William Hood Dunwoody FundJosef Hoffmann's table is clearly modeled after a Japanese Shinto temple gateway. Its spare, geometric form characterizes Wiener Werkstätte furniture from around 1900.