Connected \\ August 17, 2018

A craze for Japanese art

Hello Kitty sparked my interest in Japan when I was eight. My sister and I have vivid memories of a section in the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store in New York entirely devoted to the ubiquitous white cat with the bow. Hello Kitty was everywhere, and I longed for the imported coin purses and scented erasers emblazoned with her iconic image. I learned little about Japan from this unlikely ambassador, but she inspired my lifelong fascination with the country’s art and culture.


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Photography by Paige Besse.


I first visited Japan 30 years later with a group of ceramics enthusiasts, a trip which coincided with an international tragedy. On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan shook the country. That afternoon, I was visiting Mashiko, a small city in northern Japan, known for ceramics and the studio pottery movement during the mid 20th century. While visiting a museum dedicated to master potter Shoji Hamada, the floor began to shake. The rumbling intensified and the ground began to roll. It felt like being aboard a ship in violently turbulent waters. As our fear and confusion intensified, we heard the sickening sounds of smashing ceramics throughout the museum. The museum sustained extensive damage as did many of the pottery studios throughout the city.


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Ken Matsuzaki’s kiln in Mashiko, destroyed during the earthquake on March 11, 2011, photo courtesy of Ceramics Monthly.


Unsure about where to go, we stayed overnight on our bus and cautiously drove back to Tokyo the following morning. When we disembarked, I noticed large pallets of water bottles on different street corners, left there for people to take whatever they needed Under similar circumstances in New York or Boston would people have had the restraint to only take what they needed? Later that day, we caught the Shinkanzen (Japan’s famous bullet train) south to Kyoto. For days, we continued to feel aftershocks from the earthquake even though we were 500 miles from the epicenter.

I was fortunate and escaped the tragedy unharmed, but tens of thousands didn’t. The destruction I saw in Mashiko and elsewhere in Japan reminded me of how much of our history we’ve lost through time and tragedy. Objects that survive are a tangible lifeline to our past. PEM’s collection preserves many extraordinary works of art made by artists in Japan for export to other cultures. These glittering lacquers and brightly colored ceramics are ambassadors and survivors. They tell tales of religious upheavals, political and cultural clashes, and arduous ocean voyages that span 400 years and multiple continents. As objects made in Japan for voracious foreign patrons, they speak to us about desire and evolving global networks.

In 2018, we’ve been able to reinterpret this celebrated collection for the first time in 15 years. Working with a nimble and creative team of curators, interpreters, conservators, designers, planners and collections management partners, we’ve given this gallery a fresh look with a new interpretive spin.

Japanomania: Japanese Art Goes Global takes visitors on a journey through time, from the arrival of Portuguese merchants in the 1500s through Japan’s emergence on the world stage in the late 19th century and beyond. Throughout, the story is punctuated with stunning works of art, many which are back on view for the first time since PEM’s 2016’s exhibition, Asia in Amsterdam.

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Artists in Arita, Japan. Birdcage vase, about 1700, Porcelain, lacquer, iron, gold, and paper, Museum purchase, 2000 AE85720, © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mark Sexton.


One whimsical survivor is a large vase made of porcelain, lacquer and gold with a “birdcage” at its base.

Two lifelike painted porcelain birds peer out from the cage. Only twenty of these vases survive including PEM’s example which once belonged to Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King in Poland. A great military leader, he was also completely obsessed with porcelain. He assembled a collection of over 25,000 pieces of Japanese and Chinese porcelain to decorate his palace in Dresden in the 1720s.

Of all the goods coming out of Japan and China, Europeans coveted porcelain and lacquer the most. Enterprising European artists attempted to replicate these luxuries, often with comical results. But try as they might, they couldn’t seem to unlock the secrets of these technologies. Augustus’ obsession with porcelain was so great that he ultimately locked up an alchemist until he finally discovered how to make the first true porcelain in Europe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Augustus the Strong and his porcelain obsession lately. In June, I attended a major conference dedicated to his celebrated collection. Miraculously over 8,000 pieces from his original collection survive, despite the bombing of Dresden during World War II.

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Japanese vases from Augustus the Strong’s collection in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, photo by Thomas M. Mueller.

For the first time in over a century, scholars are working to fully catalog these 8,000 pieces. Because PEM is an institutional partner of this multi-year project, members of the Asian Export Art Visiting Committee enjoyed a rare opportunity to tour the porcelain in storage with Dr. Julia Weber and Dr. Cora Würmell, Director and Curator respectively of the Porcelain Gallery at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

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Lee Kuckro, Dr. Cora Würmell, Dr. Shirley Mueller, Dr. Julia Weber, Karina Corrigan, Suzanne Hood, and Yann Zombeck touring Augustus the Strong’s collection of porcelain in the storage vaults at Dresden, photo by Thomas M. Mueller.


Augustus the Strong’s obsession with porcelain will be a central theme of the upcoming gallery for Asian export art in PEM’s new building, slated to open in mid-2019. I look forward to sharing more of our plans for this gallery in the months ahead.

But for now, I want to return to the cats in Japanomania. Hello Kitty may be the most famous cat in the world, but Japan has always loved its feline friends. Folktales and visual art are filled with cats that capture the imagination better than any viral video. This adoration is on display everywhere in the gallery: a centuries-old porcelain kitty calls us with a raised paw, just like a maneki-neko. These beckoning cats bring good luck throughout Asia today.

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Artists in Arita, Japan, Incense holder, about 1690, Porcelain and lacquered silver, Gift of the estate of Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, 2001, AE85878.A. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

Yoshitomo Nara’s contemporary head of a child in a cat costume is all simple lines and delicate surfaces. Nara is deeply influenced by pop culture, including anime, manga, and punk rock, but the cat also connects to more historic traditions.

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奈良 美智 Yoshitomo Nara, Head, 1998, Acrylic, lacquer, and cotton over composite plastic, Gift of the estate of Mark A. Fischer, 2016.34.10. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


The craze for Japanese objects didn’t end in the 19th century. From fashion to food, anime to Pokémon GO, and cars to cat cafes, Japanese exports continue to shape our world. We’ve invited visitors to consider what products or experiences in our lives are originally from Japan? How have they been adapted to fit into new cultural contexts like the United States? We’ve also asked if you could take home one object from this gallery, what would you choose? I’ve been happily surprised that a few of the objects we included toward the end of our planning are some people’s favorites. But some of the most surprising answers have come from the last question.

If you could ask Hello Kitty one question, what would it be?

Japanomania! Japanese Art Goes Global is on view through June 30, 2019.


TOP IMAGE: Sanrio Company, Ltd., Hello Kitty rotary telephone, 1980s, Plastic, metal, and electrical components, Museum purchase, 2018.4.1  © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

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