The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization

The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization

The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization

The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization


Focused on the Lincoln Kirstein Collection of woodblock prints in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this book centres on Japan's attraction for Western novelties.


Will the way to be traveled by the flat, unrelieved surfaces of the late twentieth century resemble that traveled by the highly decorated ones of the late nineteenth century? Not all of the latter have gone the same way, but for many it has been from apparently complete rejection to delicious reconciliation.

Impassioned rejection being among the marks of the "modern," it seems almost certain that the twenty-first century will wonder why we even bothered to keep much of the stuff that our day calls art and craft. So it was with the styles of a hundred and more years ago, the styles of Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, and General Grant. And see what has happened: The Metropolitan Museum opens what it calls a neo-rococo room--many of us would call it a General Grant room--and we go to view it and are delighted. We young aesthetes turned in scorn from such structures as the Carnegie mansion. Now we wander happily through them (when permitted to) and see health and vigor in their uninhibited opulence.

Napoleon III, Victoria, Grant--and Meiji. The Meiji era, until recently, has not been in high repute. Historians of politics and economics and the like, especially Japanese ones, have assumed it to be at the head of the way leading to the disaster of 1945, and have asked what caused so wrong a turn. Historians of art and the like have seen it as the time when Old Japan, exquisite and fragile, started going to pieces.

This was especially true in the case of the ukiyo-e woodcut. The West was highly disdainful of the Meiji version. So, presently, was Japan, though for different reasons. The West was quicker to recognize ukiyo-e than was Japan, which thought it bourgeois and common. Perhaps for this reason the West was quick to resent its own intrusion on the scene. Japan followed suit, though probably with less sense of loss. New Japan may have had regrets for Old Japan, but Old Japan had proved . . .

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