This exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford features ornamental textiles from Meiji Japan (1868-1912), including some extraordinary embroidery.
I know a bit about shibori, but I’m no expert on other Japanese techniques and textiles, so for me the exhibition was a revelation in all sorts of ways.
The first room contains items of technically dazzling virtuosity, including small embroidered panels of ducks, eagles, lions and tigers where the stitching is so fine that they look just like paintings.
There is also a large screen with several scenes made by yuzen dyeing (using rice paste) – which also look like Japanese paintings. When you know how labour-intensive this technique is, you can appreciate the time it must have taken to produce such an item, but for novices like me I must admit I wondered why they would take so much trouble when the end result looks just like a painting (which would have been quicker and simpler).
The exhibition explains that, unlike the West, the Japanese made no distinction between fine art (mostly painting) and applied or decorative art. But when Japan opened up and started exhibiting at World Fairs in the second half of the 19th century, they quickly discovered “the concept that the fine arts were superior to the applied arts, and that, among the fine arts, painting was more elevated than arts such as sculpture or architecture”.
As a result, the designs of many ornamental textiles produced in Japan changed to resemble paintings so that they would be more appreciated. Or, as the exhibition says: “The makers of Meiji textiles, seeking to modernize traditional modes of visual representation, aspired to create ‘painting in silk thread’. Sometimes they replicated specific western pictures. More often, they collaborated with contemporary Japanese painters to create dazzling new images that more than ever before realised the aesthetic potential of silk thread as an artistic medium.”
While I could not fail to appreciate the technical skill required, I must admit the works in the first room left me emotionally uninvolved. Despite the fineness of the silks and the stitching and the painterly and naturalistic results, I found it all a bit flat.
One technique that I’d not heard of, called oshi-e, is a kind of padded applique, where paper or silk wadding is covered with dyed and painted silk to created padded relief designs. There was a screen showing the four classes of Edo Japan that again was startlingly naturalistic, from the folds in the robes to the muscles on the arms.
For me, the highlight of the show was the second room containing large-scale embroideries. The technical brilliance was still there in the gradation and shading of colours and fineness of the stitching, but there was more of a feeling of texture and movement, from the curl of a chrysanthemum petal to the specks of foam or ripple of water. There was also a variation of textures, with the use of metallic thread, cotton wadding and spirals of metallic couched thread.
There were lots of peacocks, depicted with peonies or cherry blossom (above). The pièce de résistance, however, was a superlative peacock screen, where the iridescent downy feathers on the bird’s breast contrasted with the scaly legs and feet, both against the glorious overlapping gold tracery of the tail feathers. I would have paid the entrance fee for this exhibit alone.