Japanese Art of the Meiji Period
(1868 – 1912)

"In a way, all my work is founded on Japanese art..."

Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

In the 50 years leading up to the dawn of the 20th century, Japan transformed itself from an isolated feudal nation to a world power. The traditional arts seemed doomed to extinction as the country raced to modernize its industries.

However, after the young Meiji Emperor assumed the throne in 1868, Japan's new leaders realised that the historic skills of the metalworker, lacquerer, enameller and ceramic artist could play a vital part in the struggle to compete in international markets.

Before long, visitors to international exhibitions in Europe and America were confronted with astonishing displays of Japanese artistic creativity and technical virtuosity.

The masterpieces of Meiji art, in a unique style blending the best of traditional design with prevailing international taste, are unrivalled in the quality of their craftsmanship and were avidly sought by Western collectors. In more recent times, however, they have been neglected by scholars and collectors alike.

Now Professor Nasser D. Khalili has formed the world's greatest collection of Meiji decorative art, comprising over 1,200 pieces of metalwork, enamels, lacquerwork, and ceramics, works by most of the known masters from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century.

Until the 1980s very few had bothered to distinguish the good from the bad in Meiji arts and crafts, let alone the very good from the good. One of the reasons Professor Khalili has formed this Collection has been to rehabilitate these remarkable works of 'art-craft': to demonstrate their unrivalled virtuosity and to promote the study of their genesis and progression.

The considerable number in the Collection of works by, in many cases the finest artists, has made it imperative to look beyond mere admiration, and has made it possible to draw up a datable evolution of their art. A prime example is the work of the enameller Namikawa Yasuyuki; the Collection contains no fewer than 32 pieces signed by or attributed to this artist, whose work we can now date to within a few years. This has had the spin-off not only of the possibility of the accurate dating of the work of other cloisonné craftsmen, but also the beginnings of an understanding of the pattern of development in the evolution of Meiji decorative arts in general. It is now possible to discern three periods that cut across the categories of material: an early period, from the beginning of Meiji until the early 1880s; a second period that runs until very close to 1900; and a third until the end of Meiji and beyond.

Other artists or lineages of artists well presented and therefore subject to the same investigation are the metalworkers of the Komai family, the potters Makuzu Kozan and Makuzu Hanzan, and the Satsuma decorator Yabu Meizan. In the same way, works commissioned by the more important of the companies - the semi-official Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha and the private Ozeki Company - can be studied in some numbers.

Some 25 pieces were made on the orders of the Imperial Household, for they bear the kikumon or chrysanthemum symbol showing that they were commissioned by the Emperor as gifts to foreign dignitaries and royalty. Another 12 are important examples of the pieces made especially for display at the great international exhibitions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Curatorial and Administrative staff

Gregory Irvine
Honorary Curator, and Senior Curator in the Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Dror Elkvity
Curator and Chief Co-ordinator