Japanese decorative art is associated with restraint, serenity and stillness. We have in mind, perhaps, a Hokusai view of Mount Fuji at sunset, or a woman in a kimono gazing wistfully past a peony into the distance. The "Kazari" exhibition at the British Museum, showing pieces from Japan, the UK and the US, is a vibrant spectacle that belies the notion of minimalism in Japanese art. Lavish, colourful, and often playful, this display of almost 200 exhibits gives a dynamic picture of Japanese history and culture from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Kazari translates broadly as "to decorate" or "to display" and can be traced back to eighth-century court poems describing the effect of ornamenting the hair with flowers. Its meaning is more than simple adornment; rather it involves transforming the ordinary object into something extraordinary. The object's relationship with its surroundings and its own purpose are integral to kazari. This duality is evident throughout the exhibition. There are pieces one would expect to see -- screens, kimonos, ceramics, fine lacquer-ware and theatrical costumes -- but there are also fascinating and unexpected items such as pipes, firefighters' clothing, writing boxes and playing cards. Beautiful in themselves, the objects give a tantalising glimpse into the hierarchical world of samurai, merchants, courtesans and actors. Japan has always had a gift for importing ideas and making them Japanese. Most aspects of Japanese culture came at one time from China -- the tea ceremony, for example -- and the first section "Kazari" sho ws Japan's fascination with China in the 15th and 16th centuries. At the shogun's court, the marriage of architecture and decoration was essential in impressing important guests. The shoguns sought the finest examples of Chinese textiles, lacquerware, and hanging scrolls.
Peace and a vibrant economy in the first half of the 17th century led to experimentation. The warriors had vast wealth and appropriated artistic symbol as a means of maintaining power. Kabuku, meaning "twisted" but referring to something eccentric or outlandish, became the aesthetic ideal and ceramics were deliberately distorted or flawed. Sets of tea bowls are misshapen and each piece is slightly different from the others.
Prolonged peace also led to an increase in portraits of people at leisure. Picnic under Cherry Blossoms is a six-panel folding screen, gold-flecked and stunning with crimson blankets laid out under the pink blossoming trees. A woman performs a fan dance while another accompanies her on the samisen. The emphasis is on the activities and expressions of the figures rather than the place, creating a scene of both precision and fantasy.
Not all art was sponsored by the warrior class. With its new money, the merchant class of the 17th and 18th centuries began to rebel against the military elite. Despite their wealth, the merchants were low in the social hierarchy …