A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Japonism: The Influence of Asian Art on Majolica Iconography


When I was first introduced to majolica, certain patterns just completely confused me. I had little knowledge of antiques or the history of the decorative arts aside from a preliminary art history class I had in college. Some of the things I saw just made no sense from a visual or aesthetic point of view.





From school I knew of the important influence of Japanese woodcuts on the Impressionists and how it ultimately let to the flattening of perspective that gave us modernism, but I knew nothing about how it impacted other aspects of design, like the artisans and craftsmen who produced the everyday things we use in our lives. As I saw more majolica I realized how important an influence it did have on Western art and it made me want to learn more.

When the doors of Japan were opened to the West in 1853 an entirely new approach to art came with it. The Europeans were fascinated by these strange and new ways of seeing that the Japanese had as part of their culture. As more Japanese art flooded the West the combination of the Western aesthetic and the Asian one created a new style entirely, that of Japonaiserie. This strange new style was neither European nor Asian but a strange combination of the two. By the 1870's Japanese motifs were finding their way on to everything we saw and touched: china, furniture, cutlery, ephemera, glass and of course majolica. In Japanese art these things had specific meanings that spoke to the viewer but to the English and French who absorbed all this they were simply exotica.



Asian stylized basket weaves, like the one show on the top of this pitcher, found their way on to all sorts of items. Cherry blossoms, bamboo and plum blossoms all found their way to european designs as well. Waterfowl like cranes and herons represented bravery and good fortune to the Japanese but to Europeans they were simply elegant birds.


The chrysanthemum was revered for its medicinal properties in Japan and represented endurance and integrity but in European majolica it becomes an unrecognizable asian motif. (Yes, those are stylized chrysanthemums on the Wedgwood St. Louis butter pat and platter and the Lincoln dessert dish below! I should add that the stylized Japanese pine looks very similar, but are usually attached to branches in Japanese art which these are not.)




So many images adapted from the Japanese, all of them beautiful and fascinating in their own way, but among the most important to majolica manufacturers was the fan.


Representing such diverse things as family and religious figures, fans were a common motif in Japanese art. Folding fans had one meaning and rigid fans another but to the Europeans they were all the same. Fans  began to appear everywhere!










In fact, fans became such an integral component to the majolica of five manufacturers, Fielding, Wedgwood, Shorter and Boulton, Eureka and Wardle, that it's impossible to think of their majolica without including something with fans on it.

Over the next few days I'm going to discuss each of these companies and their beautiful fan-themed wares.


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