Visual Art: The Japan Craze and Western Art 1880-1920

Two (cultures) for tea
The Japan Craze and Western Art 1880-1920, through Aug. 8, 2010, at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, 445 N. Park Ave., Winter Park
$3 (free 4-8 p.m. Fridays through April)

A century ago, American artists and designers were reveling in the newfound aesthetics of world cultures, and one of the most fervent "crazes" was for Japanese design. A vignette illustrating the Japanese influence on American style is on display at the Morse, and it is a literal window into a parallel world.

Dragonflies, fish, birds and other animals were seen anew by American artists through Japanese culture, and joining in the fun was Louis Comfort Tiffany, the founder of the Tiffany style of glass that continues to influence designers to this day (and whose works define the Morse permanent collection). Indeed, Tiffany dragonfly lamps flank the formal Japanese tea table on display, complete with tatami mats and an exquisite porcelain tea service. The scene is set as if the master is about to enjoy the elaborate protocols of the tea ceremony. And a century ago, the middle class of this country enthusiastically performed the tea ritual as an exotic means to elevate their existence for a brief time.

John La Farge, a rival of Tiffany's in the art of stained glass, merged his own Gothic
cathedral window obsession with Japanese-inspired design, and one of his stained glass works is backlit here. It interprets traditional Japanese subject matter — a lake with wildflowers in the foreground — in deep cobalt blues and vivid yellows and greens. Counterbalancing the marvelous panel are finely shaped vases and scattered kimono buckles, which give a twist to the implied storyline. (If she took off the buckles, did she remove the kimono too?) 

Complementing the display are fascinating photographs of 19th-century Japanese life. Here we see women preparing dinner using a crude hibachi, street workers feeding silkworms, and an incredible silk-spinning contraption, amazingly fragile yet beautiful.

This vignette is meant to bring our attention to the art and craft of Tiffany's times and to embed his work in a context of his influences. The result shows us that objects of the past continue to enrich our lives, even in the context of these uncertain times and the vagaries of fashion and taste. 

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