japonisme: 10/21/07 - 10/28/07

27 October 2007

The custom of wearing concealed beauty

Japanese Embroidery is an ancient and beautiful craft. To master it requires years of study and practice. 1

It can be said that one of the characteristics of Japanese antiques and craftworks is the particularity about little things and the refined passion towards concealed beauty. The appreciation of these two points enables us to step forward into the deep sea of Japanese culture.

In this column, we would like to introduce the 'gaku-ura' (the picture on the inner lining of kimonos), which we believe is the ultimate form of Japanese obsession towards concealed beauty.
We hope our gaku-ura collectors, people who heard this term for the first time or readers who have not been interested in kimono before will find the contents interesting and helpful for your next shopping at chuu.com.

The prohibition on sumptuous clothes and the emergence of Edo dandies

The relatively peaceful Edo period (1600-1868) under the reign of Tokugawa shogunate gave rise to a unique merchant culture centered around large cities. The well off merchants began to spend money and time on leisure and cultural pursuit, even on their everyday clothes and tools. As a natural consequence, expensive sumptuous clothes prevailed.

However, the Tokugawa shogunate feared this rising merchant power and issued an edict that prohibited the wearing of rich clothes several times during the Edo period. These edicts were very detailed. For example, highly embroidered or entirely tie-dyed kimonos were banned, and later the restriction went on to even gorgeous festival dolls and elaborate hair accessories.

It is not hard to imagine that the craftsmen who made these pieces lost a great deal, but the regulations did work in a good way in a sense that it stimulated everybody's fashion consciousness. People's interest in outwards beauty shifted to the concealed aspects, beautifying areas that could not be seen from the outside. 2

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26 October 2007

the friday quiz

(how often does it happen, the only result that google finds for your search is a jstor article? okay, that happens a lot. but how often do you

suddenly realise that you have that issue of that magazine! from 1993 -- i used to have a subscription -- ! and it doesn't appear to ever have been read! see what doing this blog is making me do:

there is one thing that all of the artists featured here have in common.

they started 'japonisme'? you guess. well, that's a great guess as steinlen, grasset, and vallotton were certainly amongst its earliest practitioners.

the missing link, perhaps, between the pre-raph- aelite and the art nouveau movements? well, i can certainly see the connection in styles and subjects.

or perhaps the originators of impres- sionism? well again, yeah; i can certainly see your reasoning.

surrealism? oh come on, yes, i get why you say that, for some of them, easily, but my initial question specified all.

and the drench- ingly, over- whelming beauty of the work, the variety of wonderful interpre- tations of japonisme from these artists, all of them, and more, many more.

click that link and you have your answer. isn't it a fascinating surprise! (or did you guess?!)

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25 October 2007



A blue jay poses on a stake
meant to support an
apple tree

newly planted.
A strong wind

on this clear cold morning
barely ruffles his
tail feathers.

When he turns his attention
toward me, I face his eyes
without blinking.
A week ago

my wife called me to come see

this same bird chase a rat
into the thick leaves
of an orange tree. We came as
close as we could and watched
the rat dig his way
into an orange,

claws working meticulously.
Then he feasted, face deep
into the meal, and after- wards
washed himself in juice, paws
scrubbing soberly. Surprised
by the whiteness of the belly,
how open it was and vulnerable,
I suggested I fetch my .22.
She said, "Do you want to kill him?"
I didn't. There are oranges
enough for him, the jays, and us,
across the fence in the yard
next door oranges rotting
on the ground. There is power
in the name rat, a horror
that may be private. When I
was a boy and heir to tales
of savagery, of sleeping men
and kids eaten half away before
they could wake, I came to know
that horror. I was afraid
that left alive the animal
would invade my sleep, grown
immense now and powerful
with the need to eat flesh.
I was wrong. Night after night
I wake from dreams of a city
like no other, the bright city
of beauty I thought I'd lost
when I lost my faith that one day
we would come into our lives.
The wind gusts and calms
shaking this miniature budding
apple tree that in three months
has taken to the hard clay
of our front yard. In one hop
the jay turns his back on me,
dips as though about to drink
the air itself, and flies.

Philip Levine

(from A Walk with Tom Jefferson
© 1988 Philip Levine)

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24 October 2007

whatever you can


It was no place for the faithless,
so I felt a little odd
walking the marshland with my daughters,

Canada geese all around and the blue
herons just standing there;
safe, and the abundance of swans.

The girls liked saying the words,
egret, whooping crane, and they liked

when I agreed. The casinos were a few miles
to the east.
I liked saying craps and croupier

and sometimes I wanted to be lost
in those bright
windowless ruins. It was April,

the gnats and black flies
weren't out yet.
The mosquitoes hadn't risen

from their stagnant pools to trouble
paradise and to give us
the great right to complain.

I loved these girls. The world
beyond Brigantine
awaited their beauty and beauty

is what others want to own.
I'd keep that
to myself. The obvious

was so sufficient just then.
Sandpiper. Red-wing
Blackbird. "Yes," I said.

But already we were near the end.
Praise refuge,
I thought. Praise whatever you can.

Stephen Dunn

(reprinted from Between Angels, Poems by Stephen Dunn, by permission of the author and WW Norton & Company Inc. Copyright © 1989 Stephen Dunn.)

The Japanese regard the crane as a symbol of good fortune and longevity because of its fabled life span of a thousand years. It also represents fidelity, as Japanese cranes are known to mate for life.

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22 October 2007

so many soaps....

Personal cleanliness was one of the most signi- ficant Japanese virtues for the West, and ex- ploited by makers of soap, perfumes, and so on. At a time when a weekly bath was con- sidered adequate for most Americans (and the British Pears' Soap ads promoted daily washing of the face as something desirable but not uni- versal, in a series of ads asking "Have you used Pears Soap today?"), the Japanese were reputed to bathe daily.

Accounts of this practice included such novelties as communal bathing, bathing outdoors with no attempt at screening the body from the sight of passersby, bathing in boiling hot water, and bathing several times a day. This could be seen as disgusting, as in an 1863 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine ("Pictures of the Japanese," Nov. 1863, anonymous but based on Rutherford Alcock's book The Capital of the Tycoon), where a discussion of prostitution (the "Social Evil") is followed by this comment:

The bath is also a great public institution in Japan. Men and women bathe together in a manner which shocks all our ideas of decency. As far as their persons are concerned the Japanese are certainly a very cleanly people. But this does not hold good of their garments. These are worn day and night, and rarely changed. This, together with the habit of promiscuous bathing, renders cuta- neous diseases extremely prevalent....

A sincere horror at the idea of public or mixed-sex bathing was probably a com- mon reaction -- a sense that promiscuous bathing was intrinsically lewd and must inevitably involve promis- cuous sex. Other, more enlightened observers de- cided however that the nudity involved might after all be innocent, since even young women seemed to be no more aware of indecency than would a child. The Westerner's horror of immo- desty could be the basis of comedy in travelers' tales, as in this passage about a young York- shireman working in the British legation in Tokyo, from Mrs. Hugh Fraser's story "In Tokyo" (in The Custom of the Country, 2nd ed., 1899, pp. 31-32):

Some things shocked his un- tried prudery beyond words. It would be difficult to de- scribe his feelings when, as he was walking, tired and dusty, through a hill village, an old woman, paddling in her bath in sight of all beholders, called out to stop him as he passed.
"What does she want?" he asked of his guide, glancing with a visible shudder at the aged bit of humanity (brown as a last year's oak leaf, and innocent of clothes as a fish in a tank) which stretched an arm to him from a steaming tub.

"She very kind woman," the guide explained, "she say, young gentleman tired, dirty, bath plenty big for two people; please get in!"....

Yet the old woman had offered him the one kindness of which he stood in need, according to her lights.

In the above quotations we see a kind of startlement that the Japanese, heathen as they are, should in this practice be possibly superior -- morally superior, if "cleanliness is next to godliness" (as an 1883 Pears Soap ad quoted Henry Ward Beecher as saying) -- to Western Christians. It seemed necessary to make a joke or find an un-godly aspect about this embarrassing possible superiority. Advertisers could however exploit this by making it clear that Americans needed to "catch up."

...At any rate, in the West the purchase of a bar of soap uniquely for personal cleansing was a luxury. All-purpose soaps, often home-made, were more common; however, by the mid-19th century manufacturers like Pears and Lever in England, and Proctor & Gamble and Kirk's in the U.S., were marketing soaps to be used only on the human skin, promising gentle- ness, softness, whiteness, and other desirable qualities.... 1

(this woman has assembled such an extraordinary, and vast, website; this is but a teensy corner, and no corner is any less interesting. in addition to beauty and scholarship and delight, you'll find fascinating political analysis. there is no small amount of irony in her ostensibly simple comments.)

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