Books: Kimono for modern times


This elegant history of kimono focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries – of which the cover photo is emblematic. It shows a woman’s summer kimono with a design of plovers in flight over stylised waves, the design radiating outward from the centre front of the kimono. Dating to the years 1900-1925, the design is based on a classic motif seen in the printed pattern books 100 years earlier, but recalibrated for the modern age.

This is exactly what drew me into this book – the quest to analyse different elements of that transition from old to new, in the Meiji era (1868-1915) and beyond.  Japan was opening up and so much was on the brink of change.

Milhaupt’s narrative covers both technical aspects and social history: the growing use of foreign materials and technologies in kimono manufacture; the rise of the big Japanese department stores; and new advertising techniques, such as posters, pamphlets and women’s magazines.

She also explores more conceptual trends such as the popularity of the kimono in Europe and North America and its connotations there; and a new nostalgia in contemporary Japan for the vintage kimono of olden times. These broader themes are complemented by a stand-alone chapter that presents the individual histories of a handful of specific kimono designers.

Technical terms from the Japanese are used throughout and, though explanations are given, I think a glossary at the back would have been beneficial. The illustrations are excellent and eye-opening – there were many items I had not seen elsewhere. A detailed and interesting read, recommended for those with a passion for costume and fashion.

Kimono: A Modern History
Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, 2014.
Reaktion Books Ltd, 312 pages, $29.00 (paperback).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Books: 101 Japanese gardens you have to visit – in North America

image cover quiet beauty

Visually stunning, this glossy hardback features 26 Japanese gardens from the United States and Canada, each photographed in loving detail. A further 75 gardens are listed (without illustrations) in Appendix 2, which is helpful because you are likely to find more that are within reach of your own home. It was a revelation to me that there are so many Japanese gardens on this continent, and so far I have visited only one, the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park.

The introductory essay is excellent and fills in the historical background. I was struck especially by the trend observed in the second half of the 20th century, a trend away from absolute authenticity to a broader conception of the North American Japanese garden as a kind of hybrid, where the designer is empowered to be more artistic or to respond to the specific qualities of the local environment.

This local adaptation comes across in the stories of the individual gardens. For instance, the Nikka-Yuko garden in Lethbridge, Alberta, where due to the harsh climate they have found they can use only plants local to southern Alberta. Or the Suiho’en garden at a water reclamation plant in Van Nuys, California, where the express purpose of the garden was to soften public opinion regarding water reclamation and reuse of sewage effluent – hence the name meaning “Garden of Water and Fragrance”.

My only reservation was that the texts on individual gardens sometimes felt pedestrian, laboring over the chronology of which feature was added when, or dwelling too much on visitor amenities – catering, weddings, corporate events. However, the gorgeous photography more than compensates.

Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America
Kendall H. Brown, 2013.
Tuttle Publishing, 176 pages, $34.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Books: Looking East by Helen Burnham

cover looking east

This slim but attractive hardback is the catalogue for the Looking East exhibition, held earlier this year at the Asian Art Museum. Introductory essays by Helen Burnham and Sarah E. Thompson set the scene, characterizing the cultural exchange between Japan and the West as a two-way process.

Japanese motifs and styles were popular and widely disseminated by the late 19th century, but the Japanese influence was one among many, and a given artwork may reference Japanese sources with the lightest of touches, or in a way that blends borrowings from other cultures too.

This approach is (unsurprisingly) more nuanced than what you take from the exhibition marketing, so reading the book helped to answer some of the questions I had when I reviewed the exhibition originally. The catalogue covers four main themes: Women, City Life, Nature and Landscape. The last section is my favourite, and concludes with a print by Yoshida Hiroshi of El Capitan, from his series The United States, a choice that integrates beautifully the Japanese and American strands of the show.

Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan
Helen Burnham, 2014.
MFA Publications, 128 pages, $29.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Below: Yoshida Hiroshi, El Capitan from the series The United States, 1925. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 40.2cm; width 26.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Image at

yoshida hiroshi el capitan

Books: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera

book cover listening to stone

Sometimes it’s a joy to try something different. I knew next to nothing of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), when I picked up this recent biography by Hayden Herrera. It was a gamble of sorts, given that the book runs to nearly 600 pages, but I am glad I persevered.

Herrera covers the artist’s life story in extreme detail, drawing on archive research and interviews with those who knew him, especially Priscilla Morgan, his partner in later life. This gives a very full picture and presents the biographer with certain challenges.

The action moves backwards and forwards between different countries. There are so many love affairs I lost count (and interest), and numerous professional false starts. On five separate occasions he creates designs for different children’s playgrounds, only to have the projects (yes, all five) cancelled at the planning stage. I found the first third of the book much the slowest and enjoyed the reading more as I went on.

What really lifts this tome are the discussions of the sculpture and other works, including the set designs for Martha Graham and the Japanese-inspired gardens, such as the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Herrera excels in her vivid descriptions and her crisp approach to interpretation. The pieces are mainly abstract, but she tells you where to look for a bird’s beak or a person’s arm, and these gentle hints enlarge your understanding, even from within the confines of a black and white photograph.

She also draws out certain lifelong themes in Noguchi’s artistic career: the tension between his American and Japanese backgrounds; his focus on the natural world; and his notion of sculpture as the shaping of space. Had this been a monograph, we could have had an essay on each of these, but instead Herrera lets them surface naturally, sticking to a chronological approach that can feel repetitive but is also more organic, more like real life.

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi
Hayden Herrera, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages.
$40.00 (hardcover); $25.00 (paperback).

Bonnard at the Legion of Honor

Following on from my last post on Japanese porcelains, another highlight at the Legion of Honor museum is their current temporary exhibition on Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). This runs to several galleries, featuring over 70 works, and covering all the themes you would hope to find in a Bonnard show, from bathing nudes to still lifes to domestic interiors. There are also tiny prints of his photographic work, which I had not seen before.

This is not Asian art, of course, but I wanted to include it here because several works show the influence of Japanese prints, an aspect of the Nabis movement of the 1890s. This is especially apparent in the scenes showing women in decorative costumes with bold patterning.

For instance, the group of four panels called Women in the Garden features a series of single women in eye-catching dresses, possibly intended to represent the four seasons, a favourite theme in Japanese art. The atmospheric garden scene Twilight likewise offers a celebration of colour and pattern on the women’s dresses. I think some of the audience will be primed to make these links after visiting the show Looking East at the Asian Art Museum, discussed in this previous post.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
6 February to 15 May 2016

Below: Pierre Bonnard, Woman in Dress with White Dots, from Women in the Garden. 1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Height 160.3cm; width 48cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at

bonnard women in the garden woman in dress with white dots

Below: Pierre Bonnard, Woman in Checkered Dress, from Women in the Garden. 1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Height 160.5cm; width 48cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at

bonnard women in the garden woman in checkered dress

Below: Bonnard, Twilight: The Croquet Game, 1892. Oil on canvas. Height 130.5cm; length 162.2cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at

bonnard twilight the croquet game

Japanese porcelain at the Legion of Honor

japanisches palais dresden

On a visit to the Legion of Honor museum in Lincoln Park, I discovered that objects in the porcelain galleries had come from the Japanese Palace (or Japanisches Palais) created by Augustus the Strong. This piqued my interest because he is a figure who looms larger than life in Edmund de Waal’s The White Road, discussed in my last books post.

The Japanese Palace is a magnificent building in Dresden (pictured above) that was repurposed in the early 18th century to house Augustus’ porcelain collection, including Chinese, Japanese and Meissen porcelain. Artists working at Meissen made use of the Asian porcelain, either to copy the designs exactly, or to create new designs more loosely inspired by the originals.

The Legion of Honor shows the eastern and western pieces alongside each other, including several bewitching Kakiemon dishes from Japan. Kakiemon ware was produced in kilns at Arita, near the port of Imari. It was decorated using a particular overglaze technique (painting over the glaze in low-fired colours), in colours such as blue, red and green. The lobed shapes of the Legion of Honor dishes are characteristic: shapes such as hexagons and octagons were often used, perhaps because warping is less apparent than on a circular design.

Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
Permanent collection (Gallery 9B)

Above: Japanisches Palais, Dresden, Germany. Image: Von X-Weinzar – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Below: Kakiemon saucer dish from Arita, Japan, ca. 1700. Porcelain. Photo: SF.
Below: Kakiemon dish from Arita, Japan, late 1600s. Porcelain. Photo: SF.
Below: Kakiemon dish from Arita, Japan, ca. 1690-1700. Porcelain. Photo: SF.

Looking East at the Asian Art Museum

monet the water lily pond
I visited Looking East a couple of months ago, soon after it opened. It is both a celebration of japonisme in all its guises, and an opportunity to see some real treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Such was the general richness and variety, I found myself struggling to marshal my thoughts, and decided to try for a return visit.

I made it back last weekend, but with a small person in tow, so we confined ourselves to a close study of one picture, which is featured on all the publicity material – The Water Lily Pond by Monet. We looked at the Japanese bridge, the willow tree, the reflections on the water, the effects of light and dark, and so on. It was very targeted viewing, but enjoyable. I confess I wasn’t thinking too hard about what Japanese art contributed to Monet’s aesthetic.

However, I did start to think harder about the premise of the exhibition. The secondary title of the show is “How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western artists”. The layout of the exhibition seeks to achieve exactly this aim, grouping together pictures by Japanese and Western artists that look similar and treat similar themes, be it Japanese bridges or horse racing. In other words, a mechanistic approach to something that is often very nebulous. Reading the labels seemed to ignite my inner rebel. Were those scenes of Parisian life really taking their cue from Japanese ukiyo-e?

I have a copy of the catalogue (thanks to my lovely sister) and I will be reading it, because I think it is easier, and maybe more fruitful, to explore connections of this sort in an essay format. I absolutely recommend the exhibition because it is full of wonderful things, no question. However, I think those wonderful things outshine and transcend the format in which they are presented, so do just go along and enjoy the show.

Looking East: How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western Artists
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
30 October 2015 to 7 February 2016

Above: Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1900. Oil on canvas. Height 90.2cm; width 92.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at

Talk by Karen Fraser: Looking West


print by utagawa kunihisa americans
This was a talk that I attended in the crazy days before Christmas, and it’s only now that I’m catching up with myself. Dr Karen Fraser (Santa Clara University) spoke at the Asian Art Museum about western influences in Japan, in the half-century from around 1860 to 1910. What follows is my brief summary of what I learnt.

Japan was essentially closed off until the interventions of Commodore Perry in the 1850s, which forced the opening of the country to the west and prompted widespread (though as yet not very informed) interest in foreign people and foreign ideas. This Dr Fraser illustrated with woodblock prints called yokohama-e, which embraced this exotic new subject matter. Among the Five Nations, for instance, is a work by Utagawa Kunihisa that purports to show natives of France, Russia and America, but with a strong element of caricature.

The start of the Meiji period in 1868 heralded a new phase in the perception of the west. There was a concerted effort to incorporate western elements into Japanese culture. For instance, the Meiji emperor was photographed for his formal portrait in Japanese dress, but then again in western dress, symbolizing the modernisation of Japan. This transition was known as bunmei kaika (“civilisation and enlightenment”). Prints of this period represent technologies or activities that derive from the west, such as the railways or horse racing events.

By the 1880s, Japanese artists were adopting practices from western art, such as oil painting, which enables techniques such as lighting, shading and chiaroscuro not readily achieved in traditional Japanese pigments. Takahashi Yuichi painted a portrait of the Meiji emperor in 1880, and he was pretty much self-taught. A decade on, artists such as Kuroda Seiki had travelled to Paris to study. His painting Fields at Grez (1890) suggests the plein air ethos of the Impressionists, while his nude Morning Toilette (1893) caused a major reaction when it was shown in Japan in 1895.

Looking West: Visual Culture in Japan since 1850
Talk by Karen Fraser, at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
12 December 2015

The talk was in conjunction with the exhibition Looking East, currently on show at the Asian Art Museum. A recording of the talk is available online here.

Above: Utagawa Kunihisa, Americans (Amerikajin) from the series Among the Five Nations (Gokakoku no uchi), 1861. Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper. Height 38.1 cm; width 25.4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at

Below: Kuroda Seiki, Fields at Grez, 1890. Oil on canvas. Tokyo National Museum. Image at

painting by kuroda seiki fields at grez