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The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum – Japanese Fine Art of the 19th Century

October 2019 Highlight

Sign of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

It is easy to overlook this little museum among the many shops and cafes that line the ascent to Kiyomizudera Temple. However, it is home to the most spectacular private collection of Meiji art in Japan, so you should not miss a visit to the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

About the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum was established in 2000. It focuses on Japanese artwork that peaked during the late Edo/early Meiji period, in particular makie, cloisonné, metalwork, and Satsuma ceramics. A part of the pieces in the collection were created by masters of the art who were appointed “Imperial Household Artists” during the Meiji period. Not only did these people receive special recognition from the Imperial Family, but their exquisite artworks were also sought after by collectors worldwide, then as much as today.

The museum's permanent exhibition, located on the first floor, shows selected pieces from the collection together with an overview of how these artworks are produced. The second floor is dedicated to the special exhibitions, four every year.

More information about the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, in both English and Japanese, can be found on their website.

About the Permanent Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum

Makie Lacquerware Although lacquerware is produced throughout Asia, the technique of makie is unique to Japan. Gold powder sprinkled onto lacquer while it is still wet creates magnificent images with a special flair.

Cloisonné Japanese cloisonné dates back to the Momoyama period about 500 years ago, but the art reached the peak of its popularity and artistic refinement in the Meiji period.

Metalwork Already more than 2500 years ago, metalwork was produced in Japan. Growing out of technology accumulated during the Edo period, the late 18th century saw the birth of a new art form.

Kyoto Satsuma Ware Satsuma ware can be traced back to Korean potters working in Kagoshima Prefecture. It received highest praise abroad and was one of the major Japanese export articles of the Meiji Period.

In the permanent exhibition room on the first floor you can watch a short film about how to create the first three of these artworks (in Japanese, with English subtitles). The Japanese versions are also available on the museum's website.

Incense burner by Shoami Katsuyoshi.

Incense burner with design of domestic fowls by Shoami Katsuyoshi. Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

About the Current Exhibition

Works by Imperial Household Artists – Carving

(August 24, 2019 – November 17, 2019)

This exhibition on wood and ivory carvings and sculptures is the fourth in a series about Imperial Household Artists. During the Meiji period, the Imperial Family appointed and supported Imperial Household Artists in different fields of traditional arts and crafts. These artists were charged with the refinement and teaching of their technique to future generations, as well as with the creation of pieces for the Imperial Household.

Works of Takamura Koun and Ishikawa Komei are spotlighted; both were appointed Imperial Household Artists in the field of carving in 1890.

For more information about this exhibition, visit the website of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

Flyer for the current exhibition at the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

Interview with the Director of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, Mr. M. Murata

Could you tell me how you started to collect Meiji art?

That was about 35 years ago, when I went to an antique mall in New York City. In one of the shop windows, some Japanese inro (n.b. pill boxes) were on display, and they immediately caught my eye. Before I knew it, I had already bought two... or three... and I never looked back, really.

So you did collect art before?

Yes, I had been collecting china, like Viennese picture plates and similar. This is why I went to that antique mall in the first place. But then I stumbled upon these fantastic Japanese pieces, and my life literally changed forever.

Compared to the other museum highlights this year, the breadth of the Sannenzaka's collection is amazing. There is makie, cloisonné, Satsuma ceramics, wood carvings... Was that your intention from the outset?

It was not planned at all. In the beginning, I focused only on inro and makie pieces. After a year or so, I became interested in other artworks of the Meiji period and slowly expanded my collection. Today, the museum holds more than 10,000 pieces of art from the late Edo, Meiji and early Taisho period (n.b. around 1860 – 1920).

Makie Inro with Chrysanthemums.

Makie Inro with Chrysanthemums by Shibata Zeshin (detail). Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

Eventually, you chose to "bring these pieces home" to Japan. Why?

When I started collecting 35 years ago, there was not much interest in Meiji art in Japan, and most of the first rate artwork had been sold abroad long ago. At some point, I wanted to show people here what has been lost in a sense. The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum is the first and only museum in Japan that is entirely dedicated to artwork from this period. Lately, things are changing though, and when a really good piece of Meiji Kogei (n.b. Meiji artworks known for their extraordinary, unmatched techniques) is sold at auction for example, very often it goes to a Japanese buyer.

The museum exclusively shows pieces from your private collection. How do you choose what will be added?

I look at many different criteria. For example, I prefer pieces in mint condition, and because most of the best work from that period was exported in the Meiji and Taisho eras, I often buy abroad. As there were few famous artists who made those pieces, this is less important to me. As long as the craftsmanship is superb, I may consider a piece. At the end of the day, however, this is my private collection, and the most important thing is whether I personally like something or not.

Satsuma Teaset with Chrysanthemums.

Kyoto Satsuma Tea Set with Chrysanthemums and Arabesques by Kinkozan Sobei VII. Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

The techniques involved in many of these artworks has peaked during the Edo and Meiji periods. Why the rapid decline afterwards?

In the Edo period, many artists had patrons like the government, wealthy samurai, or merchants. An elaborate piece of makie can take months, if not years to complete, so sponsorship was necessary for many artists. After the Meiji Restoration, many of the wealthy people either lost their status or turned to buying Western art. The government also shifted financial support to the industrialisation of the country, and people flocked to the new factories. The demand from the West kept things going for a while, but around 1900, the foreign market was saturated too. With few young people taking up the art, the craftsmanship died out eventually and quite literally.

Do you think it will ever be revived?

As I said, interest in Meiji artwork is increasing in Japan, but if modern artists will ever reach this level of expertise again is hard to predict.

The current exhibition showcases work by Imperial Household Artists, wood carvers in particular. It is the fourth exhibition with this focus – will there be any more?

Yes, I am definitely planning more in this series!

In the current exhibition, what is your favourite piece and why?

That's a very difficult question. No, that's too difficult for me to choose a single one. I hope that visitors would enjoy the whole selection on display right now.

Departure of Lao Tse by Takamura Koun.

The Departure of Lao Tse by Takamura Koun. Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.

Photos # 3, 5, 6, 7 courtesy of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.