New Values in Art: Japanese and Japoniste Ceramics, 1866-1904


This dissertation explores a constellation of interrelated, and under-investigated, French and Japanese ceramics spanning the period between 1866, the year that marked the production of the first ceramic set that came to be known as japoniste, and 1904, the year of the St. Louis World’s Fair, where contemporaneous Japanese and French ceramics shared a common vocabulary. The historical data I collected in France and Japan and its analysis, through qualitative and quantitative sociological tools, led me to conclude that Japonisme represented a tightly knit social network in which ceramics were used as currency to broker unprecedented links within and between the central binaries of the nineteenth-century French art world: academic/ avant-garde, art/ craft, fine art/ decorative art, painting/ other mediums, intrinsic/ instrumental, representational/ self-referential, and tradition/ innovation. Until now, most attention to Japonisme has been concentrated on the ukiyo-e woodblock prints used instrumentally by the Modernist practitioners of what Duranty called the “new painting.” My study turns our attention to a medium in which cultural power relationships were more evenly balanced, and in which, therefore, we can trace how two cultures can interact productively. Japanese ceramics taught French collectors and artists how to begin to discern between Chinese and Japanese traditions and to “read” the cultural references embedded in Japanese decoration. Also, French collectors’ antiquarian interest in Japanese ceramics was readily matched by French potters who reformed their practice and altered hierarchies of medium by drawing on the European arabesque tradition, the Rococo Revival, and the Japanese aesthetic of playfulness. In return, Meiji- and Taisho-period Japanese potters and porcelain manufacturers emulated European japoniste ceramic vocabulary in what constituted a renegotiation of the balance between tradition, on the one hand, and imported technologies and new global markets, on the other. Their ceramics reflected several rounds of exchange between the Japanese and French art worlds. These objects demonstrated just how complexly two social networks from two previously distinct cultures had been influencing each other in a medium they both valued, ceramics. I call this phenomenon “uroboric” Japonisme because it most fully illustrates the circular nature of transcultural exchanges and the central role that such exchanges play in the renewal of aesthetic and sociocultural identities

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