Exhibition “Japan in Blue and White” to feature a popular color-scheme in the Edo period at Pacific Asia Museum, Mar 25, ’10 – Mar 6, ’11

Japan in Blue and White

Courtesan Folding a Robe, By Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867), 19th century, Woodblock print, Prussian blue ink on paper, Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Lowrie. (Pacific Asia Museum Collection)

Japan in Blue and White is currently on view at Pacific Asia Museum’s Gallery for Japanese Art in Pasadena through March 2011. The exhibition is guest curated by Meher McArthur. There will be  several rotations of textiles and prints throughout the year.  The exhibition features porcelains, kimono, futon covers, and woodblock prints from both the museum’s own collection and borrowed from local museums and private collectors.

Cultural News, 2010 March Issue

By Meher McArthur

For over 400 years, the pairing of blue and white has been a popular color-scheme on Japan’s porcelains and textiles. Indigo blue-dyed cotton textiles have been worn by the ordinary people as work and relaxation clothes, transformed into dramatically patterned bedding, and hung as curtains in shop fronts beckoning in customers.

Porcelains with cobalt oxide underglaze decoration have been produced in large numbers since the mid-17th century, and were so beloved in the Western world that they competed with Chinese porcelains for space in European palaces.

The blue and white color-scheme was even all the rage on woodblock prints for a brief period in the early 19th century.

Cotton was first imported to Japan from China sometime in the 16th century. By the Edo period (1600-1868), it was being grown locally and became a popular fiber for use in work clothes, as it was both inexpensive and tough. Indigo also appeared in Japan around this time, and partly because of its insect repelling qualities, it was a popular pigment for farmers’ and workers’ clothing and bedding.

As all around the country, blue-and-white cotton cloth was decorated with painted, stencil-dyed, or woven designs, the color scheme became the standard for cotton summer kimono, or yukata. A yukata featured in the exhibition (a detail of which is shown in this page), is decorated with geometric designs woven into the cloth using the kasuri, or ikat weaving technique, in which some of threads are dyed blue, while others are left white and they are woven together following a pattern to create bold, contrasting designs.

Kasuri weavers were so skilled at their craft that they often wove elaborate pictures, known as e-gasuri, or picture ikat. Certain areas, such as Kurume in northern Kyushu, are still renowned for their kasuri woven textiles today.

Japan in Blue and White Yukata
(detail) Robe (Yukata) Japan, early to mid-20th century. Cotton dyed with indigo, kasuri ikat weave. (Pacific Asia Museum Collection)

The region of Arita, also in Kyushu, was where porcelain clay was first discovered in Japan in the early 17th century. One of the finest examples of blue-and-white porcelain in the exhibition is an Imari-ware jar made at the Arita kilns in the latter part of the 17th century. Many Arita porcelains were shipped to Europe from the nearby port of Imari, hence their name, Imari-wares.

The central panel of this jar (photo) features an elegantly asymmetrical floral design painted in a grayish-blue cobalt, which was common in the 17th century. Later, as cobalt was refined, it became a richer shade of blue. This jar was exported soon after its production to Europe, where it would have graced the mantelpiece of a stately home or palace. It would no doubt have been referred to as “china,” as most porcelain was at that time, even though it originated in Japan.

The combination of blue and white also became popular in woodblock prints in the early 19th century, when a colorfast pigment called Prussian Blue was introduced from Europe. For about 20 years, a type of print called aizuri-e was produced by some of the country’s greatest artists, such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Because they were only produced for a short period, such prints are rare, but the exhibition will include several over the course of the year.

Japan in Blue and White Jar
Jar with Iris Design Imari ware, Arita kilns, Japan, Edo period (1600-1868), late 17th century. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue, wood. (Pacific Asia Museum Collection)

Japan in Blue and White will open at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena on March 25. The exhibition is guest curated by Meher McArthur and will be on view in the museum’s Gallery for Japanese Art for one year, with several rotations of textiles and prints throughout the year.  The exhibition will feature porcelains, kimono, futon covers, and woodblock prints from both the museum’s own collection and borrowed from local museums and private collectors. The exhibition was made possible by Setsuko Oka in honor of Grace Oka Latham.

Pacific Asia Museum is located at 46 North Los Robles Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101. The museum opens Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $9 general, $7 students/seniors, and free for museum members and children ages 11 and younger. Admission is free every 4th Friday of the month.  For more information check www.pacificasiamuseum.org or call (626) 449-2742.

Meher McArthur is a guest curator of Pacific Asia Museum.