Ten Years of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum,Tokyo and Japonisme

(Director, National Museum of Western Art)

I would like to begin by extending my sincere congratulations on the tenth anniversary of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, which opened in 2010. Over the years, the museum has organized a succession of extremely fulfilling exhibitions, and undertaken a truly memorable series of activities. Among these were a number of unforgettable Japonisme-related projects, which raised the profile of the field and made a significant contribution to Japonisme research. As the chair of the Society of the Study of Japonisme, I am deeply grateful for these efforts. Two exhibitions were of particular importance: Tea Party à la japonaise from the Davey Collection (2011) and KATAGAMI Style (2012).

At the heart of the former was a collection of tea sets and crafts that was amassed between 1870 and 1910 by the New York-based couple John and Miyoko Davey. These items had the good fortune to become part of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan’s holdings. Although the Daveys did not initially intend to specialize in Japonisme, they gradually came to focus on the genre, ending up with a total of approximately 180 items. As the collection consisted primarily of beautiful receptacles that were used in everyday life, the Daveys were in effect able to assemble an outstanding group of works influenced by Japanese crafts and ornaments by limiting themselves to a specific era and genre. Prior to Tea Party à la japonaise from the Davey Collection, several Japonisme exhibitions were held in Japan, including Japonisme, which was staged at the Grand Palais in Paris and The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (Mitsubishi Ichigokan director TAKAHASHI Akiya and I were both involved in curating the show). These exhibitions featured works from regions such as Europe and America, and media such as pairtings,prints and crafts, which were primarily acquired by museums as artworks. However, as this collection is based on the utility articles of everyday life, we can see an aspect of Japonisme in a museum, how it was consumed in a private life.

Similarly, the second exhibition, KATAGAMI Style, introduced many examples of practical Japonisme goods. As I was part of the supervision team, it is difficult to objectively evaluate the exhibition, but the focus on dyeing stencils (Ise katagami), which provided the basis for Japonisme design, was an undeniably new approach. In the process of conducting several studies, I had come to realize that decorative art museums in many Western cities contain a large number of stencils, which were little more than scrap paper at the time that they were brought over from Japan. However, a closer examination of how the items were used in the local areas revealed a surprisingly widespread design trend. The designs spread throughout the Western world to places such as Germany, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, France, England, Southern Europe, and the U.S. These simple yet beautiful stencil designs had a tremendous impact on fin-de-siècle decorative art movements such as Art Nouveau. It was very fortunate that the exhibition was held in the Mitsubishi Ichigokan’s intimate galleries, which recall the scale of a 19th-century house.

These important Japonisme shows, held not long after the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum opened, seem to have prompted a conscious effort to shed more light on the genre in subsequent exhibitions. Take, for example, Art for Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, a 2014 exhibition showcasing the English aesthetic movement that flourished between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, there was a conspicuous emphasis on how the movement, which endeavored to turn everyday life into something beautiful and rich, made extensive use of Japanese decoration and design. Another exhibition, Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Le feu sous la glace (also held in 2014), focused on Félix Vallotton, a painter who was largely unknown in Japan. It explained how the artist had arrived at an innovative approach that differed markedly from the other members of the Nabis. Vallotton made the most of the special qualities of Japanese art in his oil paintings, notable for their planar compositions enclosed in distinctive ukiyo-e-style lines, and prints with a strong contrast between black and white. In SUGIYAMA Naoko’s essay in the exhibition catalogue, she discussed Vallotton’s collection of Japanese art, and suggested that he had combined a cynical and critical view of people with the lessons of Japanese art.

In addition, the 2017 Masterpieces of Nabis from the Musée d’Orsay exhibition (at The National Art Center, Tokyo) focused on the Nabis, a group of artists with strong Japonisme tendencies that included Pierre Bonnard, who was known as the “Nabi-japonard.” This was a joyous occasion in that the show led to greater familiarity of this important modern art group, which was not well known in Japan. Then, the Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street exhibition focused on the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and other poster-artists of the era who were as eager to learn about ukiyo-e as the Nabis. The enlightening exhibition, which provided an easy-to-understand explanation of how the artists’ works were received at the time, also included many Japanese expressions.

Most recently, in 2019, All about Mariano Fortuny exhibition offered a comprehensive look at the eponymous designer, whose importance had previously been noted in KATAGAMI Style. By introducing a wealth of documents related to Fortuny’s study of Japanese design and textiles, tracing his sources of inspiration, and revealing his creative secrets, the exhibition was a great achievement worthy of the highest praise.

As these examples suggest, the myriad activities conducted over the past decade at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum demonstrate that Japonisme has served as an important keyword. I would like to express my deepest respect for the museum’s efforts to develop its own identity, by placing Japonisme at the center of these exhibitions that dealt with modern France, while yielding such rewarding results over the last ten years.