Rethinking the Interplay of Motif and Design

“Rethinking the Interplay of Motif and Design: Meiji Ceramics for International Reception”
Sonia Coman (Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian Institution)

This paper explores the global circulation, during the Meiji period, of a constellation of Japanese visual motifs, whose aesthetic identity was at the intersection of tradition and innovation. From bird-and-flower variations to non-representational patterns framing vignettes derived from classical literary sources, these motifs were often the result of a circular mechanism of cross-cultural influence, in which Japanese cultural producers reinvented their visual vocabularies in response to 19th-century Euro-American interpretations of older Japanese arts. Featured on multiple mediums, from porcelain to metalwork, samples of these motifs were juxtaposed freely to fill surfaces in complex compositions. As such, they can be said to have functioned as “business cards” for their producers, especially at international expositions and World’s Fairs. The preservation and reinvention of repertoires of visual motifs were inextricably linked to new notions of “design,” defined across the porous boundaries of “art,” “craft,” and “industry,” all against the backdrop of the nascent modern discipline of art history in Japan. Using historiography and visual and sociological analyses, the current paper investigates this interplay of motif and design through the lens of several Meiji-period ceramics in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Examples include the porcelain vases by Fukagawa Eizaemon (1833-1889), designed and produced to showcase stylistic distinctiveness and technical proficiency for international audiences. Formerly in the collection of General Hector Tyndale (1821-1880), such objects also illustrate the circulation of motifs and of ideas about design in a tightly-knit and multigenerational network of collectors in Japan, Europe, and the United States.

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