Historically, Japanese art has epitomised the exotic and mysterious image of east-Asian wares to the West. Isolationism and the country’s relations with China, Europe and the US have more than created an air of mysticism, however. Japanese art has drawn on European, Chinese and Korean ideas over its long history and its market in the Europe and the US today is strong thanks to its decorative appeal and reputation for great craftsmanship.
Japanese Influences and Furniture
It was the East India companies, most notably the Dutch, that brought the taste for Japanese art to Europe in the mid-17th century. Japanese Screens were some of the first pieces to be imported to Europe; highly decorative, a staple of Japanese rooms and by design easy to transport, screens were the perfect export furniture for Japanese merchants looking to capitalise on European trade.
For European merchants and furniture makers, however, there was an issue of cultural compatibility. Japanese rooms typically featured few solid furnishings that were simple, highly practical and moveable – a far cry from the philosophy of the Rococo style which was predominant in Europe. The result was that Japanese design was assimilated into European furniture either through ‘Japanning’ (a process similar to lacquering) or through physically incorporating pieces like screens into European furniture. This often led to genuine Japanese imports like screens being cut up and used, sometimes very incongruously, in European pieces like dressers.
Japanese Lacquerwares and Metalwork
While furniture demonstrates Japanese interaction with Europe, the influence of China can be seen in metalwork and Japanese lacquerwares. The lacquer tree, whose sap is used in the making of lacquer, is indigenous to Japan as it is to China and Korea. In periods of cultural exchange between the two countries the use of lacquer, particularly in Buddhist sculpture, many styles and techniques were borrowed from or inspired by the Chinese. Similarly, bronzes and other pieces of metalwork have a primary association with China and many techniques, such as cloisonné (where glass paste is used to decorate metal), were used first in China before coming to Japan.
Equally, however, in both of these cases Japanese art also shows distinctiveness. Periods of isolation from China and the West have given Japan its own unique techniques and designs. Cloisonné, for example, while being European in origin and first imported to China saw Japanese innovation by 1889 in developing a technique for removing the wires used in this process called musenjippo. Japanese artists are notable for using precious metals alloyed with others like copper and their metal sculpture in particular can be highly valuable. These periods of isolation also saw the development of maki-e techniques for colouring lacquer allowing Japanese lacquerware to develop its own characteristics.
Japanese carvings, particularly those associated with Japanese dress such as netsuke (toggles), ojime (beads) and inro (small box or case). These small pieces are found carved in wood, ivory, hardstones, pottery or silver and as such have great variety and are considered as a type of art in their own right. By the 18th century, netsuke were being made by specialised craftsmen and, even following the downfall of traditional Japanese dress in the 19th century, netsuke can be highly valuable today. Even in pieces as small as a lacquered inro can be seen both the unique Japanese traditions of craftsmanship and the reciprocal relationship of style and design the country has had with China and Europe, demonstrating the complexity and beauty of Japanese art.