The sky is a borderland: that colour somewhere between silver and gold, that in-between space in the grey where heaven meets earth. It’s a border time too – that moment between sunset and twilight when the last touches of pink fade and the leaves on the silvery brown birch trees turn red, the color of resin and sap.
I can hear the burble of the creek and smell the crisp New England air; the shadows of the leaves play against my face and dance before my eyes. I know that if I reached out, I could feel the paper-thin bark smooth and cool beneath my fingertips.
It’s hard to believe then that I’m not back in upstate New York, but rather getting lost in a tapestry, a world embroidered by a man in the late 1870s, a world created by a man who had never been to New England, much less left his home in Kyoto, Japan. It’s hard to believe that nearly a century and a half later, I am standing in Oxford looking at a tapestry made in Japan based off an image painted in New York, a tapestry that travelled all of Europe before being bought by a local lord who put it on the wall in a lady’s room in his castle until he donated it to the Ashmolean Museum collection.
This tapestry is the embodiment of the history of the Meiji Shogunate in Japan whose emperors decided to open Japan’s borders to European trade rather than suffer tactics like those used against China in the Opium Wars. This tapestry represents the huge wealth of the Victorian elite who could travel the world in search of sensuality to counteract the cold calculation and automisation of the industrial revolution. It is the history of an artist whose eyes were opened to a different aesthetic world and who made his craft an internationally famous art by taking an alien form as his own and rendering it comprehensible in thread. It is the history of a lord searching for beauty and rediscovering the natural world in the man-made lens of art.
It’s hard to believe that thread can hold such power. And harder still to believe that this is just one piece, and not even the largest or most detailed, of the pieces on display at the Ashmolean Museum’s temporary exhibit Threads of Silk and Gold. From this piece I wander on and see a woman sitting before a lamp reading a book. The light reflects on the silk threads of her Kimono and bounces off her hair. What is amazing is not simply the realism, but rather the fact that this realism is maintained as I wander away, draw back to the scene from New York. My perspective changes, but the shadows on the girl maintain the form they would if both she and the lamp were real and not merely a rendition in wine red thread on black velvet. There are so many works, the detail and rendering astounding, but I am drawn back to these two. The simplicity, the precision, the imagination and the shear talent.
It is said that Japanese tapestries were the most commonly purchased good during the Meiji Shogunate, the export that kept the empire afloat.
The term Japanisme was developed to describe the craze for all things Japanese. Japanese tapestries opened European eyes to the art of weaving and embroidery and for the first time tapestry was called a fine art and not merely a craft. Japanese thread masters didn’t see the distinction – for them, tapestries were both art and craft, and something more.
They were a way of life, a way that was disappearing with the advance of European style industrialisation. So, the masters modernised and adapted and made the Western forms their own and kept the traditions alive. These two pieces, their blurring of genre and style, their representation of border spaces and change, represent the power of that period, that history, and the agency expressed by Meiji thread masters.