Bebe Taian: Henry B. Plant Exhibit: Japan + the Victorians

April 1, 2012

Henry B. Plant Exhibit: Japan + the Victorians

Last Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a lecture and exhibit at Henry B. Plant Museum, "Japan and the Victorians". It focuses on Japan in the Meiji era, how they influenced Western art, and vice-versa.

Henry B. Plant Museum is next to the University of Tampa campus. Henry Plant had a hotel built in 1891 to give tourists a reason to come to Tampa, which is now the UT campus. This was no small hostel. It was a sprawling property for the country's elite.Over 500 rooms, all of them with electricity (the first in Florida to have such new wonders!), a golf course, gardens, a beauty parlor, a telegraph station, telephones in every room! The list went on and on. This was personally financed by Plant himself, not by investors. Henry Plant himself was a real estate and railway mogul with strong business sense and a taste for hard work. Sadly, he died only 8 years after opening the grand, luxurious hotel. The hotel was later purchased by the city and is preserved today in it's current form.

 As for the exhibit itself... There were many antique Imari pieces on display, as well as a few kimono and many, many photos. There were a small pile of the stereovisual cards as well, the two-paneled kind with similar photos that you can look at through a special kind of glasses and see in a kind of 3-D. The cards are easy to come by; the glasses are not! Although, remember that these were created over 100 years ago. The technology behind them is very simple. One could probably make a pair themselves with a little effort. Someone also had donated or loaned very high quality ukiyo-e prints! It's true that I covet them almost as much as textile arts. I haven't gotten to see all of it yet, since I arrived only 15 minutes or so before the lecture, but for the entrance portion, it was lovely.

The lecture, first introduced by Patton-san with the Consulate General of Japan (Miami), then presented by Dr. Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, covered some of what I already knew, such as gracing over a few political points in Meiji Japan (the Sino-Japanese war, Japan's involvement with Korea, etc.), but went over quite a bit of what I didn't know yet.

I knew in vague terms that the West influenced the fashion of Japan and vice-versa because of the romantic "Asian" influences in Victorian culture: the soft pinks, browns, and whites of cherry blossoms were immensely appealing to romantics, and the lure of foreign silks was strong. Meiji-era women were abandoning traditional hairstyles and adopting the simpler "Gibson girl" style instead, piling the hair into a pouf on top of the head, bun secured in the back. Hair boxes for keeping fallen strands were essential for converting the lost hair into rats to fill the pompadour. People in the West dreamed of Orientalism; the beauty and mystique of 'others' so far away. People in the East had new technologies to learn to work with: factory fabric production, synthetics in the late 1800s, synthetic dyes that produced bold colours which could be quickly produced, unlike some traditional dyes which could take up to a year to properly ferment. Even in "proper" art in the Western sense was changing. A new world brought new subjects, new ideas.

Van Gogh - La Courtesane (after Eisen)
What I didn't know was how far this influence really reached! Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and many, many others took to the appearance of Japanese style (Japonisme) to reinvent the Western art world as we knew it.

One of the trends was to study a work by recreating it with another medium. This is a time-honoured tradition in the art world; to study a style by attempting to recreate it. By 'copying' the work in this manner, new ways of moving with your medium are developed, new senses of how colour and texture works together are discovered, and a new genre can be created. In this case, the painting 'La Courtesane' was modelled after an ukiyo-e by Eisen (who I touched on when writing about benihana in ukiyo-e). The surrounding work was filled in with Japonesque scenes. One such work depicted in the accompanying slideshow was of similar taste, surrounded by Asian writing. The reason given was that once, canvasses came in a standard size unless you built them yourself. The art world of today means many sizes are produced, but at the time, you were lucky to have one or two available locally. When recreating ukiyo-e in paint, space would often be "left over", and must be filled in. In this way, I suppose an original work was created, much in the same sense as a digital collage artist may incorporate others' photos or drawings into their own work.

Monet - La Japonaise (1876)
The question of how so much tchotchke with an Asian theme became prevalent in the West was also resolved. Countries looking to deal in business, especially with America and other prominent places (such as England), produced decidedly un-Japanese items: gaudy dragon sculptures which held glass or crystal balls (whatever would a Japanese house need one for?), elephant statuary, the list goes on and on. Even gaudy kimono-style outfits became exported. Where Japanese fashion dictated that 'iki' was to be subtle and sophisticated, Western fashion was thrilled with lavish embroidery, big colours and patterns, big hair and bigger hats!

Clearly, as you can see in this Monet painting, the Western idea of lavish luxury (which was becoming thought of as 'overstuffed' and 'outdated' during the same time period in Japan with the fall of the tayuu) is not what 'normal' Japanese women would have worn. Even the higher-class girls do not go around in an uchikake, normally worn either by the tayuu/oiran classes in many layers, or on one's wedding day only. Even then, Meiji wedding dresses were not normally so lavish unless someone was very, very wealthy and had that kind of throwaway fortune. Fashion-forward Japanese women began trying out combinations of kimono and Victorian dress at the same time; men who wanted to be seen as aligned with the new foreign businessmen also dressed in Western clothing. The kimono was beginning to fall out of favour for the elite, who could afford the new fabric-intensive clothing from across the world. With the social climate having changed in a foreigner-positive manner by the Emperor, they were now free to experiment with 'outsiders' clothing in a way that would previously have been punishable by imprisonment or death. The high-classes houses of the Western families filled up with Japonesque nick-nacks, and the houses of the Japanese began to change towards Western sensibilities.

As for myself...

I had intended to dress up in a Taisho tomesode with a Meiji-era obi, such as the style which would have been worn at the end of the era. I ended up working from early that morning until around 3:30, and then sleeping until 5:45 or so, with about ten minutes to get ready and out the door. Getting my kimono tied properly would not happen in ten minutes- I'm not nearly that good yet!

I had never been to the museum before, so I didn't know what to expect. Other museums in St. Pete tend to be semi-casual; they are geared towards tourists and "locals" from the surrounding counties. I didn't know what the Plant social climate was like, but I definitely underdressed. I found myself surrounded by some of the oldest, richest families in the county. I grew up without access to clean water and food every day until I was in my early teens; being suddenly ensconced with people who probably had no idea what it would be like to be without a private pool, much less without food for any length of time, was intimidating to say the least. If I could rewind the day, I'd have gone out in 1910's finest, just to appear to fit in. "Keeping up with the Jones'" doesn't come close. This is more like "at least being attired like Bill Gates' maid".

Meeting with the General Consulate's assistant, the Consulate Public Relations Liason, was doubly intimidating. My very rudimentary Japanese language skills have all but evaporated from lack of use. She's pretty, well-dressed, even better spoken, well-educated... how could I have anything to say? I don't know anything, or anyone. Because of my husband, however, I was able to be introduced.

Have you ever heard of a British comedian named Eddie Izzard? He has a joke, where you fall in love with someone, and in your head, you have so many intelligent, witty things to say to that person. Poetry and prose pour forth. And then one day, you're in front of her- and what comes out? "Hi Susie! Do you like bread? ... I've got a French loaf... umm... okay, bye Susie! I love you!!!" It's like that. It's exactly like that. In my head, I'm calm, collected, and wanting to absorb and assimilate all information, Borg-style. And then, with all these people around me, especially* her, "Umm... hi. I... um. I like kimono. I collect them..." Okay, it was maybe... never mind. Yes, it was that bad. I don't know exactly what I said, but it was pretty much that bad on my side. No wonder this woman is PR- she's so at ease with people, complete strangers even. <3 I can't imagine what it must have taken her to secure that position, but first impressions say that whatever it took, she earned it.

So, now I have a new goal: stop hyperventilating around people above my social class. I may be near the very bottom, but there's no way that I don't work just as hard as anyone else. Given a proper education, some healthcare, and a handful of grants, there's little I couldn't do. Except for maybe calculus. I don't think I can ever get my head around calculus. :P Maybe my mother-in-law could help me with the social aspects?

I'll try to get scans of the exhibit pamphlets/cards handed out this week. ^_^

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