Threads of Silk and Gold

Ornamental Textiles from Meiji Japan

@ The Ashmolean Museum, closing 27 January 2013

Whilst pretending to supervise my son’s prep last Friday evening, (read – surfing the Internet for inspiration), I happily discovered a clear contender for our proceeding Saturday morning’s family activity.  It was breast-stroking in bonus points.

Specifically as:

  • we could access it even under the harshness of our current wintry conditions
  • it was not sold out
  • it had Japan in the title, thus the most junior of our clan would be enticed
  • the Ashmolean has a great café downstairs and super restaurant upstairs
  • I could use this as an excuse not to clean
  • And by far its biggest appeal, it would exhibit ‘spectacular ornamental’ works which were experiencing their first tour and audience outside of Kyoto.

So, off we ventured to the oldest museum in the UK.

The exhibition itself is small, comprising of two separate rooms, though this provides sufficient capacity – without fear of overload – for the flawless, embroidered, fine art works on display.

Chatting with my husband over lunch today, we both agreed that Number 42: A pair of dyed cut velvet hanging scrolls depicting a leaping carp and a fisherman on a pier, took poll position in most impressive and exquisitely produced piece. The colours are muted, as they are in a majority of the pieces in the collection, however this only works to the advantage of the artwork – for the scene detailed is strangely made clearer, more precise and delicate as a result.

In keeping with everyday’s a school day, I came away more knowledgeable , then before I entered.  For I discovered that this ‘famous period of Japonisme’, closely associated with the Aesthetic Movement, which was happily explored in the drawing rooms of the growing middle classes across Europe (including Britain) during the late Victorian period, had such a great influence on European Impressionist painters at that time, particularly in reference to their themes and styles.

Apparently part of its appeal was its affordability, as ‘fine paintings and sculpture remained too expensive for many’, so ‘textiles and other decorative arts were’ seen as ‘relatively accessible’, which kind of surprised me as I can never get my head quite around the concept of what was inexpensive then and what I can achieve with my IKEA budget these days.

Other pieces of note, particularly as they provide a more diverse catalogue of the show:

  • Item Number 1: A Sample board of gold threads – (1886)
    Which gave home to 24 different shades of gold, which surprisingly are very unique in their goldness
  • Item Number 9: An embroidered panel (late 1800s to early 1900s)
    Depicting ducks by a river bank
    Not necessarily my idea of a must have design for my front room – however, the craftsmanship is worth showing off
  • Item Number 10: A pair of embroidered panels
    With particular regard to the flowers, for not only do they call out to be caressed, they are warm, plush and ‘serene’ in their sensory appeal
  • Item Number 36: Embroidered panel (1890) depicting a lady reading
    The ‘ahhh’ sounded by a fellow exhibition attendee sums it up. It’s very distinct and its use of a ‘deliberately’ limited colour palette, predominately oranges, really seals its position in my cerebral cortex
  • Item Number 28:  Embroidered hanging (1890s to early 1900s)
    View of Kiyomizu Temple Kyoto
    It’s so sedate and relaxing

With the exhibit browsing complete – it’s time for SHOP. A simple and very satisfying way to extend your cultural experience.

Hence – 25 minutes later, we headed back to the bus stop armed with a bag full of pleasures. Not only are we ready for next Christmas with a stash of half priced cards, we also purchased a copy of  The Soul of the Orient – A CD of tranquil Japanese Music (an ideal way to recreate SPA ambience in your very own, tiny, mid terrace, Victorian kitchen); however most excitedly, and who would have thought you could buy this at your local museum – a cold-soba bamboo and lacquer dish (the kind I’ve searched high and low for for ages) – perfect.