Inscribing Women and Gender into Histories and Reception of Design, Crafts, and Decorative Arts of Small-Scale Non-European Cultures

By Groot, Marjan | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Inscribing Women and Gender into Histories and Reception of Design, Crafts, and Decorative Arts of Small-Scale Non-European Cultures


Groot, Marjan, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction

The divide between fine art and decorative art/crafts is a Western construction. This was recognized in 1889 by Justus Brinckmann, director of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, when he focused on Japanese culture for his book Kunst und Handwerk in Japan. After first discussing the people, their natural environment, dwellings, weapons and more, he wrote: 'To the Japanese, like the Greeks, this wide gap has remained unknown, that for Western peoples of our time yawns between the so-called high and liberal arts and those forms of material visual design which are designated as industrial art or arts and crafts, as minor arts, as decorative or as technical arts.'1 The division emerged during the Renaissance and crystallised after the eighteenth century. By Brinckmann's time, however, it was a live subject of debate.2 Historians of fine art either considered decorative art not 'real' art or saw it as an anthropological phase in cultural production that could illuminate the habits and customs of peoples in an ethnological way, thus implying that this was an inferior field of study. For example, in a brief observation on Japanese art exhibited in England at the International Exhibition in London in 1862 (its first appearance in Britain), John Leighton, who included non-European cultures in his Suggestions in Design from 1853, discussed the fine arts before turning to applied art: 'Having disposed of the higher elements of genius in Japan, we now come to those phases of applied art by which people become known to the future historian of art.'3 [my emphasis]

Around 1870 the historiography of the applied arts was recognized as being important in itself. Working in Vienna, where interaction between male curators and scholars since the 1850s gave rise to a specialist Kunstgewerbetheorie (theory of artistic crafts), Bruno Bucher, curator of Vienna's K.K. Museum für Kunst und Industrie (Imperial Royal Museum of Art and Industry), justified this split from art history. In his Geschichte der technischen Künste (History of the technical arts) of 1875, he writes: 'The attempt, to complete the manuals of Art History with an elaborate account of the development of decoration and the minor arts hardly needs any justification these days.'4 This historiography of 'decoration and minor arts' - Bucher's own words - occurred at a time when industrialization, materialism, capitalism and colonialism became intricately linked. The scholarly interest in decorative art reflected this: it took a very materialistic and possessive stance, and was implicated in a network of trade, collections, museums, Western city culture, and social class structures.

Acknowledging that significant historical narratives were formed between the 1850s and 1890s, this paper addresses how women as authors, and as recipients and practitioners, can be inscribed into the emerging discourse around decorative art in relation to small-scale non-European cultures. How is historiography affected when the gender of authors, recipients and practitioners is addressed in the context of a confrontation between Western and non-Western artefacts through these authors' gendered discourses? Female authors, artists and artisans, along with small-scale non-European cultures, have not featured prominently in historical narratives within the field. One example, noted by Jill Seddon, is Isabelle Frank's anthology of primary source texts The Theory of Decorative Art. An Anthology of European and American Writings 1750-1940 (2000), which offers only one source text by a woman in a total of 392 pages covering a period of almost 200 years.5 Supporting the established historical narrative on design and decorative art, and without non-European material culture, Frank's anthology appears to be almost entirely constructed around texts written by men. But by contrasting the gendering in this new historiographical field with other written sources such as travel writing women become more prominent. …

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