11
Aug 07

Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan

FTPost a comment • 574 views

The above is the title of a rather lovely new show at the British Museum (open until October 21st), exhibiting I believe a hundred works from the last fifty years or so in various crafts categories. There are lots of spectacularlt beautiful pieces, particularly in ceramics, lacquerware and kimonos. It’s only a fiver, and very much worth visiting.

Trouble is, I came away dissatisfied with the accompanying wall text and labels. I suppose now I am knowledgeable enough about Japanese arts and crafts (my website being the reason why) that the text isn’t really aimed at someone like me. Nonetheless, I did think it reinforced the traditional Western assumptions about the clear separation between arts and crafts. There wasn’t really that concept in Japan before the renewed contacts with the West after the Meiji restoration of the late 19th Century. These European ideas did rather take over, though they were fought in the early 20th Century by a number of movements and groups, most famously the Mingei movement. I wished the show had said something about the different perception of arts vs crafts in Japan – perhaps mentioning the integration and overlap in some of their great art movements and schools (see the developing Rimpa section on my site for an example).

There were also a couple of factual errors, which really surprised me. The wall text and leaflet both state that the government passed laws in 1950 to preserve and reward the traditional crafts, creating the designation commonly known as ‘Living National Treasures’ for the great exponents of these. This term began in 1955 rather than 1950, and really was little more than a name change for a practice set up in 1890 – around that time, crafts made up around 10% of Japanese export revenues, and the government were very aware of their value, both financially and as a source of pride in a national identity.

More simply, the text and leaflet claims that lacquer has to be left to dry. This is not true – Japanese lacquer is not like that which we use the term for in the West, and it does not dry, it simply hardens. Indeed, it does so best in anatmosphere of fairly high humidity.

I guess I am beyond expecting to learn too much from the Japanese exhibits at the British Museum, but I think I have the right to expect factual accuracy.

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