Perception isn’t about truth, it’s about changing values and even changing times. At the Pacific Asia Museum, three special exhibitions (“Meiji: Japan Rediscovered,” “Visions of the Orient: Western Women Artists in Asia 1900-1940” and “Through the Colonial Lens: Photographs of 19th and 20th Century India”) take a look at what people saw, how they interpreted events and incidents and how we perceive the art now.
“Meiji: Japan Rediscovered” attempts to show the connection between Meiji period (1868-1912) and the so-called Western world. Opened to the world for the first time in 200 years, Japan took in many new influences during this time period, making it both a tumultuous and vibrant time of history. The exhibition features the art produced for export such as oil painting, woodblock prints, cloisonne, ivory, metalwork, textiles, picture books and ceramics. On view until 26 February 2012, the exhibits will have several rotations.
Japan was never totally closed off to the world, having trade with China and the Netherlands, but this was very limited. The title of the exhibit represents the redefining of Japan through the things and scenes the artists chose to represent Japan to the international markets. The oil painting of a Japanese woman dressed in a kimono illustrates the common theme of a bijin (beautiful woman) with a more Western aesthetic using a newly adopted Western medium. Also on view is a spectacular cloisonne vase with a green dragon wrapping around its contours.
On the other side, was the Western artists who came to Asia and hot they represented the so-called “Orient.” While we’ve often seen how the white male represented the Orient–often as a place to escape and explore sexual fantasies and no-strings-attached relationships–the Orient was a much different place for the women who went to East Asia.
Instead of seeing the geisha and the concubines of the Yoshiwara district, subjects that interested Japanese male woodblock printers as well as foreign male artists and photographers, we see romanticized landscapes that seem ready for a storybook and scenes of domesticity: a mother and child. Helen Hyde was the first of four female Western artists who lived in Japan. In Tokyo in the 1920s, Bertha Lum, Elizabeth Keith and Lilian Miller joined Hyde. This exhibit shows their prep sketches, paintings and tools as well as their woodblock prints.
Japan was never colonized by Western powers although it hosted foreign colonies in places like Yokohama. India was a British colony from 1858-1947. The British Raj would become India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Somaliland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. The exhibit “Through the Colonial Lens: Photographs of 19th and 20th Century India” shows 70 photographs that show how amateur and professional photographers saw India using the newly discovered technology of photography.
The photographic processes used during those two centuries are far removed from the instant digital images we know. So time consuming that the subjects rarely smiled and one photo shows a girl with a “third leg” because the youngster couldn’t stay still for such a long exposure.
The images reflect both the concept of colonialism, and the new business opportunity afforded by this technology: commercial photography. Consider how once racial superiority encouraged the British Raj, Manifest Destiny and what Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden.” Yet the burden of superiority required suppressing races and cultures: simultaneously documenting ethnic groups via photography while crushing and threatening their very existence.
Colonialism has fallen out of favor and the white man’s burden is the past historic wrongs and the remnants remain in today’s world, countries and societies. How we understand these records of that past has also changed tremendously. The point of view has shifted.
Consider India then and consider the rise of India now.
Consider the romantic images of the Japan of Helen Hyde, Bertha Lum, Elizabeth Keith and Lilian Miller and the images we see now of a modernized and tsunami-devastated Japan.
Pacific Asia Museum is located at 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101 and is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $9 general, $7 students/seniors and free for museum members and children under 12. Admission is free every 4th Friday of the month.