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  • New Art and the Display of Antiquities in Mid-Meiji Tokyo
  • Chelsea Foxwell (bio)

The Meiji period (1868-1912) was an age of new cultural terminology, but it was also a time when artists, critics, and viewers profoundly altered their thinking about past art and its roles in the creation of new works. This should come as no surprise given that most definitions of modernity involve the will to break with the past, either through the ambition to surpass it, or by dominating it through scholarship and the construction of archives and museums—places where the past is fixed and sequestered from everyday life.1 Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) has been associated with the latter movement; in the wake of modernization theory in the late twentieth century (a historical perspective that presented Japan as progressing toward a satisfactory state of modernity), scholars and popular historians alike celebrated him as an active modernizer through his involvement in a series of pioneering activities: the establishment of the first art journal (Kokka [Flowers of the Nation], 1889), the first national government-sponsored art school (Tokyo School of Fine Arts [Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō], 1889), the first Japanese-language lecture series on Japanese art (Nihon bijutsushi, 1890-92),2 the first Japanese survey text of art history (Histoire de l'art du Japon/Kōhon bijutsu ryakushi, 1900-1), and so forth.3 All of the above institutional packages for art historical knowledge have distinctly Western precedents, and scholars from F. G. Notehelfer to Karatani Kōjin have offered the ironic view that "Okakura was able to use his Western education and intellectual skills to defend and promote the values of the [Japanese] past."4

By sheer virtue of his youth—he was twenty-six when he helped found Kokka and the Tokyo School of Fine Arts—and his international upbringing in Yokoyama, Okakura's frame of reference was undeniably different from that of his seniors. He was born too late to have experienced the modes of late Edo antiquarianism that inspired Ninagawa Noritane, Reizei Tamechika, and the kokugaku (native learning) loyalists whose thought supported the Restoration.5 While their contributions form an equally important—albeit [End Page 137] under-recognized—contribution to modern historical consciousness and Meiji discourse on cultural preservation, their view of the value of studying the past was patterned on Edo, rather than Meiji, political and social imperatives.

Okakura, with his university upbringing, was markedly different from these earlier thinkers. At the same time, however, it is limiting to understand him as a founding figure who stood above history, guiding others toward a more modern worldview; as the art historian Kinoshita Nagahiro has noted, Okakura, too, was a product of the Meiji era.6 As such, he was shaped not only by his Western education, but also by the physical and intellectual spaces that arose in Meiji Tokyo over time, through a combination of serendipity and design.7 As a means of contextualizing Okakura's own view of the past, this essay examines exhibitions of premodern art in the 1880s, arguing that such events played a central role in shaping historical consciousness in the Meiji era.

Venues for the Display of Antiquities in the 1880s

Okakura came of age in a culture of exhibitions. He was only fourteen at the time of the first Domestic Industrial Exhibition (Naikoku Kangyō Hakurankai) of 1877, with its ambitious Western-style art gallery (Fig. 9.1), and he was just nineteen when over two thousand artists descended on Ueno Park with submissions to the first Domestic Competitive Painting Exhibition (Naikoku Kaiga Kyōshinkai) of 1882. By the time he matured as a scholar and intellectual, the institutions of the public exhibition and the museum were already rooted in Japanese society.

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Kobayashi Eisei, The Opening of the Exhibition at Ueno Park (Ueno kōenchi gokaigyō zu, 1877), color woodblock print triptych bound in album. Smart Musem of Art, University of Chicago, 1989.14. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herman Pines.

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Fine paintings, ceramics, lacquerware, and other art antiquities attained an unprecedented degree of visibility in 1880s Tokyo. Here the English term "antiquities" or...