If you visit the museum this October, you will discover delicate floral sketches and immaculately crafted lacquer boxes in the Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery for Japanese Prints, as well as many other tranquil scenes from nature, such as paintings of birds and butterflies, in the Japan and Buddhist Galleries. Welcome to the exhibition Shibata Zeshin and the Art of the Meiji Era.

Would you be surprised to learn that the artist who produced these lived in a time of tremendous cultural upheaval?  Or that such elegant works were initially criticized by some as expressions of political defiance?

Allow me to explain.

Alongside the gannenmono—the first wave of Japanese migration to the Hawaiian Islands–this year we are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, a transformative moment in Japan’s history. 15 years after being forced to open its ports to international trade by Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy, Japan’s military government and allies of the Imperial family entered a bloody civil war. The Imperialists, who ultimately prevailed, announced the birth of a new era: the Meiji period. The capitol, known for the previous 250 years as Edo City, was renamed Tokyo. Edo Castle, at the heart of the city, was thereafter called the Imperial Palace. The country’s caste system, which divided citizens up into samurai, farmers, craftspeople, merchants, and untouchables, was ostensibly abolished. And all of these changes were ratified in a new, national constitution.

But how would these developments lead anyone to interpret flowers, sketches, or lacquer vessels as expressions of political defiance?

From the beginning, the Meiji government made some serious mistakes.

One was their policy of “civilization and enlightenment” (Japanese: bunmei kaika), which essentially meant a wholesale adoption of Western values and practices. A clear expression of this policy was the annual, government-sponsored Expositions for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry, which began in 1877. In these expos, artists, architects, and engineers displayed not only their industrial power but also, through their focus on modern technology, their “civilization and enlightenment.”  In the face of such rampant Westernization, however, other artists felt a moral obligation to preserve for future generations technical knowledge about traditional Japanese art.

At the forefront of this traditionalist movement was Shibata Zeshin (1807 –1891).

Zeshin is best known for his mastery of both painting and lacquerware. From the age of 10, he apprenticed under a renowned lacquer artist, and he soon began designing and producing his own work. Although naturally gifted at sculpting, he often struggled with the initial two-dimensional designs. In order to improve his ability, at the age of 15 he began to study the Maruyama-Shijo style of painting, which emphasized the importance of sketching through direct observation. The woodblock prints on display, produced 60 years later, radiate the sensibility of that traditional painting style.

Zeshin’s three-dimensional lacquer works, such as the stationery boxes also currently on display, are as impressive—and as rebellious—as his print designs. The artist is particularly famed for his revival of a long-forgotten lacquer wave-sculpting technique. Equally innovative was his revival of using lacquer on paintings. In the 1760s, before the invention of full-color woodblock printmaking, artists used colored lacquer to decorate their monochromatic works, but the technique quickly lost popularity thereafter. Zeshin devised a lacquer formula strong enough to adhere to a woodblock print. Moreover, the lacquer was flexible enough that it could even be painted onto a hanging scroll without it flaking off when the scroll was rolled up or unrolled.

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891) Writing Paper Box (Shikishibako) Designed with Persimmon and Leaves Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), c. 1872–1891 Cryptomeria wood, lacquer Gift of the James Edward and Mary Louise O'Brien Collection, 1977 (4548.1)

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891)
Writing Paper Box (Shikishibako) Designed with Persimmon and Leaves
Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), c. 1872–1891
Cryptomeria wood, lacquer
Gift of the James Edward and Mary Louise O’Brien Collection, 1977 (4548.1)

All of these innovative ways in which Zeshin preserved and drew public attention to Japan’s artistic heritage must have greatly frustrated Meiji officials tasked with enforcing the bunmei kaika policy.

Did the Meiji leaders ever reconcile their differences with Zeshin?

Gradually, they came to appreciate the importance of preserving traditional Japanese art techniques. Doubting the urgency of Japan’s Westernization, and realizing that Japanese lacquerware was quite popular in Europe, a liaison to the Vienna Exposition of 1873 recommended Zeshin as an exhibitor. The artist proudly displayed a lacquer picture of Mount Fuji—the quintessentially Japanese motif—painted in the Maruyama-Shijo style. The artist immediately developed an international following, which, needless to say, pleased Japanese officials.

Fittingly, at Zeshin’s funeral in 1891, the Emperor of Japan offered the following tribute to the legendary artist:

He rebelled against recent innovations which he considered rough and ill-conceived, and grieved for the fine, old, gold applications by means of which he strived to recapture the essence of pictorial art.

Shibata Zeshin and Art of the Meiji Era will be on view in the Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery through Oct. 28. Zeshin’s paintings and lacquerware are also on display in the Japan and Buddhist Galleries.

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891)
From the series Comparing Flowers, volume 6
Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), c. 1880s
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of Drs. Edmund and Julie Lewis, 2003 (27600.11)