Traditional and Transformative: Japanese Meiji Period Decorative Arts

The long-lasting Japanese Meiji era, beginning in 1868 and extending into 1912, characterizes some of the largest cultural, economic, and artistic changes in Japan. Most

This impeccable Japanese cabinet is a stunning example of Meiji-period furniture This impeccable Japanese cabinet is a stunning example of Meiji-period furniture

importantly, this period represented the change from a feudal society, into a more socially mobile and modern environment. Japanese ports were now open to external influences, bringing in an unstoppable amount of artistic and cultural influence from the West. Japanese artists took to these new methods, styles, and traditions, and made them their own, effectively ushering in a distinctive era of Meiji period decorative art.

Now reconciling both the new Western and traditional Japanese art, artists created a vast amount of artistic items: folding screens, hanging scrolls, and decorative objects. Artistic production amount in this period was at an all-time high and surpassed any other previous period. Decorative art was in the forefront of everyone’s mind, each artist constantly seeking out a new, more innovative style. Particularly, Meiji Period furniture grew immensely in popularity and value. As a commodity, western cities longed to own it and Japanese artisans excitedly produced it.

Known as a shodana, this remarkable work is both beautiful and practical Known as a shodana, this remarkable work is both beautiful and practical

This Japanese Period Meiji Display Cabinet, constructed around 1900, represents exceptional and ideal Japanese artistic characteristics blended with hints of Western features. Known to maintain all activities, such as reading, writing, and eating, at floor level, pre-Meiji period Japanese artisans rarely produced any living furniture at a tall height. However, with the introduction of Western conceptions and traditions of dining and living, some Japanese artisans started building vertically instead of horizontally. At seventy-two inches high, this would have been considered quite tall at the time.

Exquisite Shibayama inlay of bronze, ivory and mother-of-pearl inform the entire piece Exquisite Shibayama inlay of bronze, ivory and mother-of-pearl inform the entire piece

Called a “shodana” or book cabinet, the hardwood structure is crafted from zelkova or paulownia wood, materials native to the southwest and eastern Asian regions. Crafted from the wood are four compartments that are hidden behind sliding doors. Multiple other compartments are hidden behind the magnificent chest, as secure places for Japanese tea accoutrements and other living accessories. This intriguing, yet highly outstanding display cabinet, offers true grace and beauty in its design and structure.

Decorating the closed compartments of the display case are genre scenes of Japanese cranes, considered as very symbolic in Japan, with a Shibayama inlay of bronze, ivory, and mother of pearl. This inlay of precious materials creates magnificent geisha and meticulous landscape scenes. On each scene, there are strong hints of traditional Japanese style painting. For example, low, hovering gold clouds infiltrate the landscapes and embody an entity of their own. However, these purely Japanese depictions are infiltrated with Western optical perspectives and proportions. All the while, though, these exquisite designs offer a window into Japanese scenery and ideals. Even further, they offer a peek into the emotional draws of the artisan.

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