Japan in Vienna
It is believed that Japonisme has its beginnings in the workshop of a printer in Paris, when, in the 1856, the painter and printmaker Félix Braquemond (1833-1914) came across, by chance, examples of Japanese manga (kacho-ga) by Hokusai that had been used for packaging porcelain in the 1850s. In the last half of the 19th century, when Japan had reopened to the West and the great civilizations encountered each other, the time was ripe to fuel the West’s fascination with the East. Later, in Vienna, an international exhibition continued to serve as an opportunity for the promotion of Japonisme in Europe.
Up to the Meiji period the Japanese defined themselves by their belonging to a province and use of a regional idiom. Forging ahead the new era worked to develop a strong sense of belonging to a nation and establish an imperial project. Officially presented as the ‘restoration’ of a power abrogated by a military government in the late 12th century, the start of the Meiji period can be seen as a plan to create a ‘Nation-State’ and a powerful empire around the figure of Emperor Mutsuhito (r 1852-1912). The coastal cities open to foreigners like Yokohama since 1859, Nagasaki or Kobe, became models for modernising Japan’s large cities.
After the World’s Fair in London (1862) and Paris (1867), in which Japan and its articles inspired great curiosity, the budding imperial government grew aware of the role of these exhibitions in resolving a critical economic situation owed to the disappearance of the great aristocratic families’ commissions. Artistic productions played a crucial role in boosting the nation’s reputation and prestige and straightening out the debit commercial balance caused by the huge cost of modernisation; the government selected the artists and the articles presented in the exhibitions (Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878, 1889, 1900), Chicago (1893), among others.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the Vienna World’s Fair, MAK are exploring a critical aspect of this prestigious international show: the “Orient’ as a construct of 19th-century Orientalism. It draws on Egypt and Japan as examples, which in the contemporary worldview were often thought to be part of the region referred to as The Orient. This new exhibition explores Orientalism from a number of angles. The World’s Fair in 1873 was the first international exhibition in which the modern Japanese government of the Meiji period officially participated in. It was inevitable that promotion of Japan came under government auspices rather than individual enterprises that had previously been the case. At Vienna’s fair, the government moved to a larger scale and built a Shinto shrine, as well as a Japanese garden, near the shrine’s main structure. There was also a traditional music and dance hall and a traditional arched bridge.
The Japanese exhibits drew in the crowds, where they marvelled at the large kinshachi (golden carp). These carp are mythical fish-like creatures with a head of a tiger attached to the body of a fish – their tail fins are always facing skywards and they have distinctive sharp spines on their backs. Since they are known for shooting water out of their mouths during a fire, they are seen as guardians of buildings and are often used as decorations for buildings, used as symbols of protection. Kinshachi can be found on the roofs of Nagoya Castle and are considered one of the main symbols of the city. Also on display were a copy of the monumental 13th-century bronze Great Buddha of Kamakura and a model of the five-storey pagoda of Tennoji Temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhis located in Yanaka, Tokyo.
In the Industrial Pavilion, the Japanese government exhibited ukiyo-e, crafts, as well as commercial products suitable for export that were being created by the newly industrialised county. Japanese products sold well, including thousands of Japanese fans selling out in just a week. The Emperor Franz Joseph I and the Empress Elisabeth visited the Japanese pavilions and attended the opening ceremony of the arched bridge, even though it was still under construction at that time.
The Japanese exhibits were so highly regarded by the British company that built Alexander Palace in London that they purchased not only the structures of the Japanese garden, but also all the trees and stones in the garden at the end of the exhibition in order to create a Japanese garden for its newly rebuilt palace (after a fire) in 1875. It would have been the first time the British public had seen an authentic Japanese designed garden in a public space. Originally started as a private company, Alexandra Palace and Park eventually was owned by the local authorities who made a contract with Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha, a trading company established by the Japanese government after the Vienna International Exhibition.
Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha contributed greatly to the ability of the Japanese government to earn foreign currency by selling Japanese industrial art products abroad. At the third World’s Fair of 1878 in Paris, they created a Japanese-style cottage that was very favourably received, adding to the desire for Japanese goods and design in Europe. The interpreter working for the Japanese company at the time was Tadamasa Hayashi (1853-1906), who subsequently became a well-known art dealer in ukiyo-e and a promoter of Japonisme in France and elsewhere in Europe.
The Vienna World’s Fair of 1873 had a considerable impact on the history of the MAK Collection (Museum für angewandte Kunst), the Museum of Applied Arts. It marked the first time that Japan was formally invited to participate as a nation, and it seized the exhibition as an opportunity to present itself through a kaleidoscope of artworks. Many of these were subsequently given as presents by the Japanese government to European museums, including the Imperial Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry (today’s MAK). They now possesses a key collection from the Vienna exhibition and 80 percent of the objects selected for the exhibition, using Egypt and Japan as Europe’s ‘Orient,’ are being exhibited for the first time.
The exhibition opens with portraits of two key European figures: the Austrian Czech architect Franz (František) Schmoranz Jr (1845–1892) and the German chemist Gottfried Wagener (1831-1892). Commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt, Schmoranz was tasked with designing the Khedivate’s pavilion, while Wagener was assigned to draft the Japanese complex. Both men enjoyed relative autonomy in deciding on how to present the respective countries.
One of the exhibition highlights is the presentation of the ‘Arab Room’ designed by Schmoranz. It was permanently installed at the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry from 1883 to 1931 and has not been accessible to the public in its entirety since. Schmoranz’s draft draws on architectural elements used for the Egyptian pavilion at the World’s Fairs in Vienna (1873) and Paris (1867). For the current exhibition, large segments of the room have been reconstructed and fitted with existing items from the MAK Collection including ceramics, textiles, glass, and metal objects. Also on display are the watercolour sketches of the Arab Room by Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1887-1965), which he produced while visiting Vienna in 1908.
Further exhibits include drafts of the entire Egyptian ensemble, historic photographs, and a broad selection of Japanese and Egyptian items from the MAK Collection, alongside Lobmeyr glasses designed by Schmoranz as well as excerpts of his tile collection that is kept at the MAK.
For its theoretical grounding, the exhibition draws on recent postcolonial critiques of Edward Said’s canonical research on Orientalism. While often reduced to a catch-all concept used to decry Western practices of othering, the MAK understands Orientalism as an intricate fabric of dynamic negotiation processes that also draw attention to ‘Oriental’ practices of self-othering, resistance, or complicity. This helps the exhibition to look beyond Said’s binary opposition of Orient and Occident. In this context, Schmoranz’s and Wagner’s diverging opinions on what constitutes a ‘representative’ form of national style are documents that merit particular interest. Their interactions with Egyptian and Japanese representatives reflect the complex entanglements shaping late 19th-century Viennese Orientalisms.
These added layers of Egyptian and Japanese experience enrich the context surrounding the Vienna World’s Fair and help to decipher inherent mechanisms as well as strategies in the fields of aesthetics and cultural policy. Further questions will shed light on the – in retrospect biased – criteria used to select participating countries and explore the ‘inner workings’ of popular Oriental enthusiasm.
From 28 June to 22 October, 2023, MAK, Vienna, mak.at