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Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Japanese Art at the V&A

3 November 2015 Ryan Ormonde

The Victoria and Albert Museum has been collecting Japanese art since it opened its doors over 160 years ago. After two years of hard work by curators, restorers and technicians, its Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art reopens to the public this week.

Be it Celts at the British Museum or Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery, art and culture in London is all about the next big exhibition, particularly for those members of museums and galleries wanting to get their money’s worth. It is easy to forget that so-called ‘permanent’ exhibitions are nothing of the kind. Even behind exhibition glass, time takes it toll. Ideas of what should be seen by the public are liable to change, while curatorial touches such as lighting and typography easily fall out of fashion. Closed for the last two years, The Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art at the V&A opens its doors once more this week. Essentially a brand new exhibition, if it is not permanent it is certainly here to stay for at least another ten years, sponsor-willing.

Rupert Faulkner, Senior Curator of V&A’s Asian department, joined the Museum over 30 years ago. “One of my first jobs was to help with the original display of the Toshiba Gallery when it opened in December 1986,” he says at a preview for members of the press. Faulkner has for the last couple of years been supervising this refurbishment, for which over 70% of works are newly displayed. Japanese art has always been part of the V&A’s area of specialty. Anna Jackson, Keeper of the Asian Department explains, “The V&A began collecting Japanese art right from the very beginning in 1852, the year the museum was established. A few years later Japan opens its borders to Western powers and there was a great flurry of Japanese objects that came to the West. There was a great craze for everything Japanese.”

Faulkner puts this into the context of a political upheaval in Japan at the time: “The opening of Japan by the USA and European powers during the 1850s helped trigger the collapse of the samurai rule and, with the major restoration of 1867-8, the restitution of power to the emperor. The programme which Japan then set upon, to turn itself into an imperial power of a standing equal to those of the West, was initially funded by the harnessing of extraordinary skills of its metalworkers, lacquerists and ceramists: the making of high end crafts for export to Europe and North America.” The 1920s and 1930s marked Japan’s first major folk art revival, or the creation of the concept of Japanese folk art, and the simplicity of the objects on display in that section of the gallery contrasts with the exquisite detail that dominates the other displays.

One of the most sought after and collectible examples of historical Japanese art is netsuke. A fashion accessory adorning the costumes of fashionable men from the late 16th century onwards, they are ornate toggles used to hang containers and pouches from the body. The tiny scale of the medium makes them a wonderful showcase for artisanal skill, while their function and ubiquity allows for experimentation and seemingly endless novelty, each netsuke marking their owner as an individual, albeit one participating in the same fad. A striking example within the panel of netsuke on display in the gallery is a yellow-toned, bulgy-eyed Dutchman, representative of the privileged position of that nationality within Japan at the time.

Faulkner explains that “the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan during the 1540s” led to “the subsequent banning in 1639 of all Europeans except for the Dutch who were contained on a small artificial island in Nagasaki Bay, the island of Dejima.” Now that there is a somewhat more welcoming approach to Europeans in Japan, The V&A are keen to show the country’s increasing engagement with the West that continues to this day. More recent exhibits include the first ever portable stereo (the Walkman), designed and manufactured by Sony, which prompted a revolution in music consumption throughout the world, as well as a rice-cooker adorned with Hello Kitty, who forty years on from her first appearance is still up there in the pink pre-school icon stakes, in this country second only to Peppa Pig.

The diversity of Japanese culture over the centuries is represented, with items for use in tea ceremonies; artefacts connected to religion and war; and art depicting Kabuki and Noh theatre as well as its masks and costumes. Faulkner points to how the gallery contrasts “the austere splendour of Noh, which was patronised by the Samurai ruling class, with the in-your-face action-packed nature of Kabuki, a more demotic form which arose in the 17th century and was a key feature of the so-called Floating World: the hedonistic, consumerist, ‘living for the moment’, ‘modishness is all that matters’, townspeople culture.”

Featured in other displays are early 19th Century prints by Kikukawa Eizan and a dress designed by Issey Miyake. One very charming object relevant to London is a 1937 kimono for a young boy, commemorating the first aeroplane flight from Japan to Europe. The kimono charts the path of the historic flight, incorporating images of Mount Fuji and Tower Bridge. For thirty years the gallery has been transporting its visitors to historic Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo (then known as Edo). With that in mind, there is something rather amusing about a kimono celebrating a trip to Croydon Airport.

The Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum is free to visitors. For more information, see website.

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