Red House, west front.
The organisers of any exhibition on a vast subject like the Arts and Crafts movement — a fortiori when that notion is extended to include its influences outside Britain, even outside Europe — face a major difficulty, viz. ascertaining how much previous knowledge they are to take for granted from the visiting public. Considering that the admission charge is rather high, at £10, one may assume that only connoisseurs will fill the rooms. But owing to the wide scope of that international artistic movement, it is impossible to expect anyone but the most dedicated enthusiast to have adequate prior familiarity with the many facets covered by an exhibition which has material from Britain, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Japan, Russia, Scandinavia and the United States (and a few objects from other countries). Attempting to provide a central guiding thread, with not-too-obtrusive but nevertheless badly needed background information on the objects from countries which even the artistically-educated public generally does not associate with the Arts and Crafts movement, must have been no easy task for the curator, Karen Livingstone (see Note 1).
The exhibition is divided into four major sections — Britain, America, Europe and Japan — which somehow respect the chronology. That Britain has an unassailable claim to paternity is in no doubt: the historical debate only revolves around the exact date of birth of the Arts and Crafts movement. The staff of William Morris's Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent, now part of Greater London, have no doubt that its starting-point was the building of the house in 1858-1860 (see Note 2). But technically, of course, as the useful introductory pamphlet given to visitors reminds us, "The movement took its name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1887."
The Forest (see details below). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, by kind permission.
It must be stated here straight away that the present reviewer found two sections rather weak — Europe and, yes, Britain — though other visitors will have other priorities and a different sense of balance. The reason is that the founding father (or mother) should be given pride of place, and the British section hardly has more space devoted to it than Europe and Japan. The British Arts and Crafts movement would have deserved far more space, if only because of the immense variety of its output and creators, who are represented here with only a fraction of their vast oeuvre. To go back to that central figure, William Morris (1834-1896), he has only one clearly-identified work on display, and in fact a cooperative project: "William Morris, John Henry Dearle and Philip Webb, The Forest, tapestry. Woven silk and wool. 121.9 x 452 cm. Britain, 1887. Woven by Charles Knight and Sleath John for Morris & Co. Exhibited by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888." Admittedly, this is a major piece, of more than respectable size, and in a "prime" location which immediately catches the visitor's eye — but surely other examples of William Morris's vast, multifaceted design and handicraft activities could have been shown (visitors to the Museum will know that it has a permanent "William Morris Room"). Newcomers to the Arts and Crafts field — we are back to the initial argument on how much previous knowledge to expect from the visitor — will not necessarily associate "Kelmscott Press, The History of Reynard the Foxe, translated by William Caxton. Vellum, wood-engraving. 29.4 x 21.9 x 28 cm. London, 1893" with William Morris and the considerable — and lasting — contribution which he made to the renewal of the book arts with his Press (see Note 3). Also, hardly anything is said in the captions of the Socialist ideals of people like Walter Crane (1845-1915) and Emery Walker (1851-1933; see Note 4) — which must have somehow shaped their artistic ideals and conceptions. Walter Crane, for instance, famously designed the membership card of the Socialist League founded by William Morris in 1884. In the Exhibition, his work is represented by "'La Marguerite,' wallpaper panel. Woodblock printed paper. 170.8 x 49.5 cm. Britain, 1876. Made by Jeffrey & Co."
Examples of cabinets, from our own website, by designers introduced below. Left to right: (a) The "Kelmscott Chaucer" Cabinet by C. F. A. Voysey, 1899. (b) Writing Cabinet with elaborate metal pulls and hinges, by C. R. Ashbee, manufactured by The Guild of Handicraft, c. 1899. (c) A walnut and ebony cabinet by Ernest Gimson, c. 1905.
Of course, one has to draw the line somewhere, and it is understandable that a decision had to be made not to allow William Morris and the originators of the movement to "eat up" the entire space — as they easily might, owing to their enormous outpout. Arguably, it is C. F. A. Voysey (1857-1941) who has the best and largest selection of his work, with exhibits like the remarkable "Table. Oak, originally unpolished and unstained (dark varnish a later addition). 69.5 x 75 x75 cm. Britain, designed in 1903, made in 1905-6. Made by F.C. Nielsen. Made for Hollymount, Buckinghamshire, the home of C.T. Burke" or the stupendous "Clock. Mahogany, painted and gilded, brass and steel. 50.8 x 27.1 x 17.2 cm. Britain, 1895-6. Case made by Frederick Coote. Movement made by Camerer, Cuss and Co." The latter is part of a small enclosure (designed by the famous architects, Allies and Morrison, like the rest of the Exhibition's mise en scène unless otherwise indicated) called "A London Home", which benefits from its own page in the visitor's pamphlet, where the concept is explained: "The urban home of William Ward-Higgs, a successful solicitor in the City of London, and his wife Haydee reflected their advanced artistic tastes. In 1896 they commissioned the architect C.F.A. Voysey to help furnish the house that they had leased in the London suburb of Bayswater. Voysey often took a purist approach to his interiors, carefully designing every detail, but the rooms in this house were eclectically furnished. It was a typical Arts and Crafts urban home, sophisticated and intellectual, but also comfortable and practical. The furnishings combined the new and old. Voysey designed several items, including a desk and armchair for Haydee Ward-Higgs."
In connection with Voysey, outside the "London Home," there is a piece by C.R. Ashbee (1863-1942), "'Lovelace' escritoire. Oak, stained dark green, with interior of painted poplar and pierced wrought-iron hinges backed with morocco leather. 147.3 x 123.2 x 61 cm. Britain, c.1900. Made by the Guild of Handicraft, with interior painting after a design by C. F. A. Voysey. Made for Mary, Lady Lovelace." But Ashbee's work is primarily represented by his silverware and jewelry, the star piece on display being without dispute "The Painters and Stainers' Cup. Silver, set with semi-precious stones and enamelled decoration. 46.2 x 13.2 (diameter) cm. Britain, 1900-1901. Made by W. Poyser, London. Commissioned by Harris Heal to commemorate his term of office as Master of the Painters and Stainers Company."
Not far behind in quantity and quality is Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), with at least two masterpieces of furniture, "Cabinet on stand. Veneer of macassar ebony and satinwood, drawers in cedar veneered with satinwood. 123.7 x 93.4 x 41.1 cm. Britain, 1902-5" and (with Alfred Powell) "Cupboard painted with Cotswold scenes. Painted oak. 166 x 190 x 53.0 cm. Britain, c.1913. For William Rothenstein." The "Costwolds school," associated with Gimson and his neighbour Sidney Barnsley (1865-1926), benefits from an outstanding ensemble display called "Sidney Barnsley's Cottage," whose undoubted highlight is his "Dresser. Oak. 184.5 x 221 x 76 cm. Britain, c.1898. Designed and made by Sidney Barnsley in the Pinbury Workshop, Gloucestershire," garnished with Earthenware by Grace Barnsley and Alfred and Louise Powell, designed circa 1910-1925. Next to it, we have an Armchair, a Candle Holder and Fire Irons by Ernest Gimson, circa 1900-1910.
William Morris and his friends are well known for their stained glass work, which is well represented in the Exhibition, but perhaps less known to non-specialists of the subject is the other Church work which they undertook, like vestments and altar fitments. On show is a remarkable trilogy by Philip Webb (the architect of Red House, it will be remembered): "Altar table. Oak. 94.7 x 145.7 x 66 cm. Britain, 1896-7 Made by John Garrett & Son for Gilmore House, Clapham, South London, formerly the Rochester Diocesan Deaconesses Institution," "Superfrontal. Linen, embroidered with silks and gold threads. 127 x 349 cm. Britain, c.1896-7. Embroidered by May Morris for Gilmore House, Clapham, South London, formerly the Rochester Diocesan Deaconesses Institution" and "Cross. Wood, silver plates. 115 x 77 x 4.5 cm. Britain, c.1896-7. Made by Robert Catterson-Smith for the East wall of the Chapel of the Rochester and Southwark Diocesan Deaconess's House, Clapham Common, London."
Even less known, probably, is their association with women's clothing. In the centre of the "Britain" room, there is a large showcase with three typical examples of Arts and Crafts dress: "Jessie Newbery, (attr.), dress. Embroidered silk. Approx. height: 140 cm. Britain, c.1900-20," "Thérèse Lessore, dress. Embroidered linen. H: 139 cm. Britain, 1905. Exhibited by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1906" and "Smocked dress. Silk and lace. 163 x 65 x 85 cm. Britain, c.1893-4. Made by Liberty & Co"; the latter being selected as one of the "Highlights" of the Exhibition.
Examples of works, from our own website, of two of the designers introduced below. Left: Hand-thrown two-handled vase by William de Morgan. Right: Textile design by William Mackmurdo, 1890.
Here we come to the central problem, not only of the Exhibition, but of the whole "Arts and Crafts" concept: what to include and what to leave out. For instance, the Exhibition has nothing by Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), while the William Morris Gallery now has a full (admittedly small) room devoted to him. On the other hand, the Exhibition has many vases by some well-known members of the movement like William De Morgan (1839-1917): "Vase. Earthenware painted with lustre. 19.3 x 18.7 cm. Britain, circa 1898. Made at the De Morgan Works, Fulham"; but some by people only known to specialists: "Harold Rathbone, vase. Earthenware painted in enamels and incised. 29.8 x 24.1 cm. Britain, c.1905. Made by the Della Robbia Pottery" or "William Howson Taylor, vase. Earthenware with flambé glaze. 35.6 x 15.2 cm. Britain, 1910. Made at the Ruskin Pottery." Likewise, along with hangings by a recognised figure of the movement like Arthur Mackmurdo (1851-1942): "Wall hanging. Woven wool and cotton. 215 x 120 cm. Britain, c.1882. Made for the Century Guild, woven by A.H. Lee & Sons in 1887-8. Exhibited at the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, 1888", we have "Mary Newill (1860-1947), The Owls, embroidered hanging. Wool on linen. 214 x 155 cm. Britain, circa 1905-8." And the list of artists with at least one item on display is much larger than the few names alluded to so far suggests.
The obvious risk — both for the movement and for the Exhibition — is of course dilution. When some adherents have more exhibits than William Morris himself, and when collectively the "minor" disciples (probably inevitably) have far more space than the master(s), one is slightly uneasy. Of course museography is fundamentally about hierarchy, since choice implies ranking, but the tendency today is to reject the notion of hierarchy in art — so what is the poor museum curator to do? One thing which could have been done, ideally perhaps, is to have made the British section far bigger, first because this would have reflected the real balance between Britain and the rest of the world in the international movement ("political correctness" and national sentiment have — or should have — nothing to do with museum policy), and secondly because this would have enabled the organisers to keep the "minor" pieces (which are extremely welcome, of course, because there are generally few opportunities to see them) while devoting far more space to the great founding fathers, once again restoring a sense of balance and proportion — and, yes, hierarchy. As it is, the unprepared visitor seems to be left to himself to come up with his own, another form of museographical choice, but a debatable one in the eyes of the present reviewer.
The next room, devoted to "America," starts with "Native American Sources," whose most spectacular object is undoubtedly "Unknown Yakima artist, woman's beaded dress. Buckskin, beads, coins. 122.1 x 48.4 cm. America, 1868-1900. The dress was at one time part of the collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany." In the same large standing showcase, behind it, one has a magnificent "Chief blanket. Ravelled bayeta (baize) and handspun wool. 144.8 x 171.4 cm. America, 1860-65," and to the right a display of basketry and pottery, either Indian or of Indian inspiration. Facing that showcase is a display of "Art Pottery," with names that are generally unfamiliar to the non-American non-specialist — with a major exception, that of Frank Lloyd-Wright (1867-1959), who is present with "Vase. Earthenware. 76.2 x 33 x 33 cm. America, c.1906. Made by the Gates Pottery for Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois." The guiding concept seems to be clear: the visitor is invited to compare and contrast these exhibits both with those in the "Native American Sources" showcase and with those which he saw in the "Britain" room. What filiation there is between, say, "Artus Van Briggle, 'Lorelei' vase. Earthenware. 24 x 11 cm. America, 1898. Made by Rookwood Co., Cincinnati," and the exhibits which he has seen earlier is not in any way indicated or even suggested by the captions — once again it is up to the visitor to form his own opinion.
Two illustrations from The Craftsman of March 1904. Left: A Craftsman house. Right: A Craftsman Living-Room. Sourced from the Internet Archive, (offline here, uploaded by the Robarts Library, University of Toronto, facing pp. 585 and 589).
Discerning the filiation with the British Arts and Crafts will be no problem, however, for even the total newcomer to the movement when looking at the (topographical and perhaps also metaphorical) centre piece of the "America" section: "A Craftsman Room," described as "Recreation of a 'Craftsman' room based on original drawings from Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Workshops. The wood and treatments are those suggested by Stickley in The Craftsman magazine. Design interpreted by Jo Hormuth, Chicago for the International Arts and Crafts Exhibition." The visitor's pamphlet adds that "This recreation of a Craftsman living room is largely based on a design published in The Craftsman in March 1904. The post-and-panel detail is taken from a living room published in 1907." Appropriately enough, a copy of The Craftsman, Vol. V, January 1904, No.4, is deposited on the central table.
Ideally, it seems, the visitor should first go and see the William Morris Room in the Museum, "photograph" the décor and fitments mentally, have a good look at the furniture, lamps, etc. in the British section of the exhibition, and only then come to see the superb "Craftsman Room". For those Europeans like me who have only ever seen Stickley's furniture on photographs, this is a pure marvel. The furniture and objects by Stickley (1858-1942) are too numerous to list here, but special mention must be made of the sense of unity which emerges from the whole. In some displays in the British section, particularly in Church objects, one may occasionally have a sense of mélange des genres, if not of pseudo-historicising bric-à-brac. Nothing of the kind here: we have a starkly coherent, severely rigorous interpretation of The Craftsman's agenda, of "the ideals of 'honesty, simplicity and usefulness'" as the Exhibition notes put it. Curiously, there is no mention anywhere (if only to dismiss the idea) of the possible filiation/influence/connection with the so-called "Shaker furniture," whose inspiration obviously proceeded from the same principles. One is also reminded of William Morris's famous phrase, which it would perhaps have been appropriate to quote in connection with Stickley's "Craftsman Room," "Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful" (The Beauty of Life, 1880). Once again, of course, the intertextuality is boundless, and keeping the captions within reasonable limits must have been no easy task.
After Stickley's work, associated with the East Coast, there is a large display titled "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School", the keynote piece being his "Dining table and eight chairs. Oak, metal, leather. 73 x 139.1 x 152.9 cm; chairs: 94.6 x 43.5 x 45.7. America, 1904. For the George Barton house of the Darwin Martin complex, Buffalo, New York", with various other objects by Lloyd Wright. George Washington Maher is also well represented, with « Fireplace surround. Foil-backed glass, stained glass, plaster. 101 x 189.9 x 5.1 cm. America, 1901. From the Patrick King house, Chicago, Illinois" and "Armchair. Oak, leather. 117.5 x 64.3 x 55.9 cm. America, c.1912. From 'Rockledge,' the E.L. King house, Homer, Minnesota." A very informative short film in which Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural work figures prominently is also shown continuously in the room.
We then leave the Prairies, the Midwest and Chicago for "Greene and Greene and the American West". The Greene and Greene in question are Charles Sumner Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Mather Greene (1870-1954), with four exhibits coming from two homes in whose decoration they participated: impressive "Stained glass doors from the entry hall, Robert R. Blacker Estate, Pasadena. 196 x 378 x 5 cm. America, 1907-1909" and a superbly complicated "Light fitting. Mahogany, stained glass. America, 1907-1909," from the breakfast room of the same estate; and a matching "Desk" and "Chair" in maple, figured maple, oak, ebony and silver (1908) from the guest bedroom at the Gamble House, Pasadena. Suitably separated by a Screen by Lucia K. Mathews (Painted and gilt wood. 182.8 x 203 x 2.5 cm. America, c.1910-1915), we can see another Desk, "Arthur F. and Lucia K. Mathews, drop front desk. Oak, with carved and painted front. 149.8 x 122 x 50.8 cm. America, c.1910." After looking at various smaller objects by different artists, one can then proceed to the next section, on "Europe."
The reason why I suggested earlier that the European section was a weak spot in the Exhibition is that the great Belgian school is largely absent: why should major artists like Victor Horta (1861-1947) and Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957) be left out (Horta) or almost left out (Van de Velde, with only two minor pieces, a Plate and a Samovar) when their German or Austrian counterparts are comprehensively included? And if, say, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is (rightly) represented in the British section, why should Hector Guimard (1867-1942) be excluded from the European section? The fact that Guimard and the Belgians did not use the English expression "Arts and Crafts" does not seem to be sufficient reason, since the Germans, Russians and Scandinavians did not either, and they are included. Most commentators would agree that there is considerable overlap in movements like "Arts and Crafts," "Art nouveau," "Art déco," "Jugendstil," "Deutscher Werkbund" — to name only the more famous. The museographical choices made here are extremely puzzling to the layman, and they do not seem to be explained anywhere in the notes offered.
A black adjustable armchair designed by Joseph Hoffman (see below), and manufactured by Jacob and Josef Kohn in 1905, uploaded to Wikipedia by "Sailko."
Still, the tour of the "Europe" begins magnificently, with two superb posters greeting the visitor as he enters the room. Besides being great works of graphic design generally, both will particularly fascinate the visitor with a special interest in lettering and typography. Significantly, they infringe the basic rule of "Arts and Crafts" functionalism, as the artistic choices made in the design of the letters make the message difficult to read, almost illegible in some cases. The conflict between aesthetics and utility, which William Morris spent his life denouncing and trying to surmount, is clearly reappearing here. These posters are in the "Vienna" sub-section, which has a lot of objects by Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), perhaps the most remarkable being his "Adjustable armchair. Steam-bent beechwood frame, stained mahogany colour, plywood geometric pattern, brass pole. 110 x 62 x 83 cm. Made by J & J Kohn. Austria, c.1908." There was naturally nothing new in the use of steam-bent wood: the technique was very old and had been used for decades in the making of country chairs, like the well-known "Windsor" chair produced by the "bodgers" of High Wycombe. What was new, however, was the use of plywood — a recent industrial development. Morris & Co. had of course adopted the processes of repetitive manufacturing associated with modern industrial production — but it could still be claimed that the products were made with "natural" materials (one only has to think of Morris's rejection of aniline and his experiments with old-fashioned vegetable dyes). Not so with Hoffmann and his friends of the 1908 Vienna "Kunstschau": "man-made" materials (interestingly called "Kunststoff" in German — literally "art stuff") like plywood were now acceptable.
Yet traditional solid wood and veneer with inlays of metal or mother-of-pearl were not abandoned. The sub-section has an exceptional "Desk and integrated armchair" by Koloman Moser ("Deal, oak and mahogany, veneers of thuya wood, inlaid with satinwood and brass. Desk: 144 x 120 x 60; chair: 67 x 60 x 60. Austria, 1903. Made by Caspar Hradzil"), described as "one of the most lavish pieces of bespoke furniture produced for an individual client in Vienna. It was part of an integrated scheme for the breakfast room in the Hölzl apartment." Next to it, there are two fine pieces by Otto Wagner designed for the dining room of his own apartment at 3 Köstlergasse and exhibited at the Vienna 8th Secession Exhibition in 1900: a "Cabinet" ("Walnut, beech, pine, leather, brass, mother-of-pearl. 198 x 100 x 62.5 cm. Austrian, c.1898-1899") and matching "Armchair" ("84.5 x 69 x 60 cm. Austrian, c.1898-1899"). In contrast with the Kokoschka and Roller posters, the poster by Adolf Jettmar hung above the armchair, which announces the 27th Secession Exhibition, has immediately legible typography — one more proof, if need be, of the considerable diversity of the Arts and Crafts movement in all its national and chronological versions, a diversity which makes it impossible to define the "canons" of the movement.
Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), introduced below, is best known outside Finland as an architect. His Helsinki Railway Station owes something to Charles Harrison Townsend.
For some reason (one does not have to be a Pangermanist to believe that there is strong cultural affinity between Germany and Austria), the German sub-section is not displayed next to "Vienna": in between, one has "Central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia", and unfortunately for this review with few photographs of objects on the website. One discovery, for the non-specialist of Scandinavian art, of the far-reaching (in all meanings of the expression) dimension of the Arts and Crafts movement is that there was already a society called "Friends of Finnish Handicraft" created around 1880, i.e. before the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1887), and the Arts and Crafts of Finland are most spectacularly represented by "Eliel Saarinen, ryijy rug. Cotton, wool. 304.8 x 186.7 cm. Finland, 1904. Made by Suomen Käsityön Ystävät, Helsinki for the Rose Boudoir, Friends of Finnish Handicraft's twenty-fifth anniversary exhibition, Helsinki, 1904." Norway is also strongly present in textile form, with "Gerhard Munthe. The Daughters of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) or The Three Suitors, tapestry. Linen and wool. 185 x 226 cm. Norway, 1897. Woven by Augusta Christensen at the Nordenfjedske Kunstindustrimuseum Tapestry Studio, Trondheim. Museum für Kunstgewerbe, Hamburg: 1898" and with "Frida Hansen, Danaids' jar, tapestry. Wool. 288 x 233 cm. Norway, 1914. Designed and woven by Frida Hansen." Likewise, for Hungary, we have "János Vaszary, Little Girl with Kittens. Cotton and wool. 126 x 85.5 cm. Hungary, 1901. Woven by Sarolta Koalszky at the Németelemér Workshops. Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest". Also on display are Vases and Ceremonial drinking vessels from these three countries — here again the visitor being implicitly called to make mental comparisons with what he saw first in the British section.
Many of the exhibits from Russia come from the Talashkino artist's colony (see Note 5), most remarkably Princess Maria Tenisheva's trilogy of "animal" boxes in champlevé enamel (1903): "Box in the shape of a fish," "Box in the shape a bird," "Box in the shape of an owl." Also notable from the Colony, we have "Aleksei Prokofevich Zinoviev (attr.), cover. Embroidered linen. 550 x 530 cm. Russia, c.1900". Before turning to Germany, one may watch a film on the Nordic Arts and Crafts: again, of great value for the non-specialist.
The German sub-section is itself divided into two strands, "The Darmstadt Artists Colony" (Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie) and "Munich and Weimar". Not unexpectedly, most exhibits on the Darmstadt Colony are on loan from the Museum Künstlerkolonie, Darmstadt, though the tone is immediately set by a superb poster in the V&A's collections, Joseph Maria Olbrich, "Darmstadt, Die Ausstellung des Künstler-kolonie" (Colour lithograph. 82.3 x 50.4 cm. Germany, 1901. Printed by H. Hohmann, Darmstadt), a poster for their first exhibition at Darmstadt. Connoisseurs will once again appreciate what the Museum describes as "highly mannered lettering", notably the work on the double "l" in "Ausstellung." Olbrich in fact dominates this particular strand, with several designs for objects as varied as Tea Towels, Kitchenware, a Wine Service and a Jewellery Box beside a veneered Cabinet. Also well represented is Peter Behrens for his table ware: "Dinner Service," "Set of Drinking Glasses," "Set of Cutlery" (all circa 1901-1902). In the "Munich and Weimar" display, this time largely based on loans from the Münchner Stadtmuseum, the dominating figure is Richard Riemerschmid, with many interesting pieces of furniture and a large carpet. This completes the "Europe" Section (though of course many other exhibits have not been mentioned here).
The Japan Folk Crafts Museum or Nihon Mingeikan in Komaba, Meguro, Tokyo, uploaded to Wikipedia by "Kamemaru2000."
Lastly, after moving to the final room, the visitor can discover (the word is used in its literal sense) "Japan, 1926-1945." Needless to say, probably few Europeans or Americans would associate Japan with the Arts and Crafts movement. It is one of the great revelations of this Exhibition to enable the visitor to perceive the continuity — sometimes immediately apparent, often less so. The first difficulty is the time-lag. The pamphlet indicates that "the Mingei (Folk Crafts) movement in Japan was led by the philosopher and critic Yanagi Sôetsu and officially established in 1926" (see Note 5). It also argues that "it was equivalent to, and very largely inspired by, the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and Europe" and that "John Ruskin and William Morris, whose work had been available since the 1880s, were major influences. Knowledge about subsequent developments in Europe also reached Japan."
The welcome background notes on the Mingei Pavilion, "The first and most important Mingei building designed by Yanagi Sôetsu and his companions was the Mikunisō (Mikuni Villa). Initially this was built as a Folk Craft Pavilion for an exhibition in Tokyo in 1928. After the exhibition closed, a wealthy businessman bought the pavilion and converted it into a guest house in the grounds of his residence in the Mikuni district of Osaka" confirm the visitor's immediate impression that there can be no hesitation in designating the major exhibit in the Section.
Like Stickley's "Craftsman Room" in the "America" Section, it is beyond dispute the "Reconstruction of a [Dining] room designed by Yanagi Sōetsu, Hamada Shōji and Kawai Kanjirō and shown as part of the Folk Crafts Pavilion at the Imperial Exhibition for the Promotion of Domestic Industry in Ueno, Tokyo, in 1928" which was realised for the International Arts and Crafts Exhibition by Fushimi Kogei Co. Ltd, Kyoto. The central pieces were executed by the Kamigamo Folk Craft Cooperative, Kyoto, in 1928: "Dining Table and Chairs" designed by Kuroda Tatsuaki (Zelkova wood with carved roundels and clear lacquer finish. 73.6 x 184.3 x 125.2 cm (Table); 102.7 x 56.2 x 57 cm (Carvers); 102.7 x 44.1 x 50 cm (Chairs) ), with "Cushions" (Dyed and woven silk. 37 x 37 cm) and "Rug" (Woven from strips of recycled cotton and silk cloth (saki-ori). 250 x 210 cm) designed by Aota Gorō. The ambience of a dining room is recreated thanks to the presence of various Jugs and Jars, with the appropriate Table Centre — the whole being surrounded by a wealth of decorative objects.
In conformity with the philosophy of the Exhibition, there is another "linking" dimension between East and West, since as a kind of en-suite we have a Master's Room which, as the background notes put it, "shows the interconnecting western-style dining room and Japanese-style reception room." The simultaneous, synoptical view of Tatsuaki's "Dining Table and Chairs", evidently (at least to us Europeans) in the conventional Western tradition, in the Dining Room, side by side with his "Round Table" (or at least only ten feet/three meters away) in what equally appears to us to be in the hallowed Eastern tradition ("Wood with carved roundels and clear lacquer finish. 30 x 91 x 91 cm"), in the Master's Room, can only leave us to guess where the "interconnection" is, apart from the topographical en-suite arrangement. We are told in the pamphlet that "The reconstruction displayed here is based on photographs and a bird's-eye view from the mid-1930s", and we can only congratulate Fushimi Kogei Co. Ltd. on the very effective historical scenography which they have achieved — but beyond the scenography, it is very difficult to see where the profound affinity is.
Elsewhere in the visitor's pamphlet, we read that the Mingei Movement "combined old and new, east and west, rural and urban in a compelling hybrid that sought to meet the new economic and social conditions of early 20th-century Japan," but "hybrid" implies mixture, and the en-suite display only seems to show two alien worlds, two traditions of decorative arts which superbly ignore each other, if only because they relate to two sets of social and cultural conventions which have almost nothing in common — the archetypal example here being the Dining Room, where people at table sit on chairs (a "Western" custom), in contrast with the Master's Room, with its low table and floor cushions (an "Oriental" custom, at least in Western eyes).
Likewise, in the other Japanese exhibits from the seven "Artist-Craftsmen of the Mingei Movement" selected for the Exhibition, the technical choices and the themes found in the ornamental designs sometimes seem very remote from those of the Western Arts and Crafts. Here, it seems that we have to distinguish between the theoretical approach and the actual production. The agenda, as we now say, that these artist-craftsmen set themselves indeed could have been written by Ruskin, Morris and their disciples: "The Mingei movement was a modern craft movement. It championed the work of named artist-craftsmen who, by example, helped to preserve and raise the standards of traditional artisanal craft production threatened by industrialisation" (Visitor's pamphlet).
Hand-thrown bowl by Bernard Leach (1887-1979), the one English person among the Mingei craftsmen, 1973. Photographed by the York Museums Trust Staff. Courtesy of The Estate of Bernard Leach/York Museums Trust via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0).
But intentions — even good intentions — are not enough in this hard world. The presence of an Englishman, Bernard Leach, among the seven, or the purchase in England of a Windsor Chair ("Stained, varnished and waxed elm and yew. 102 x 59 x 62 cm. Britain, circa 1790-1820") by Hamada Shōji, are probably not enough to establish the continuity which we expect when we speak of a "movement." The pamphlet's introduction states that "Other countries adapted Arts and Crafts philosophies according to their own needs," but the real question is how far adaptation does not lead to transformation into something else. Nobody would dismiss the Museum's notes: "The works created by these seven artist-craftsmen are concrete expressions of the enthusiasms and preoccupations of the artistic and intellectual circles in which they moved. They are undisputed classics from a seminal period in the development of Japanese crafts." But this is beside the point in the discussion on continuity, for the question is that of the link between "the development of Japanese crafts" and the legacy in Japan of the Western Arts and Crafts to form such a concept as "International Arts and Crafts" which includes Japan.
At the two ends of the time scale (and of the tour, as well), we find Ruskin's (1819-1900) drawing, "The Pulpit of San Ambrogio" (Watercolour on paper. 43.7 x 33 cm. Britain, circa 1845) and Serizawa Keisuke's (1895-1984) "Six-fold Screen with illustrated map of Okinawa" (Stencil-dyed silk. 170 x 183 cm. Japan, 1940), two high-quality "exemplars" of the visual arts if one accepts this traditional classification — but the visitor remains unconvinced of the filiation between the two. Is it enough to enable the historian of art to accept the concept of an "International Arts and Crafts Movement" to read in the visitor's pamphlet that "while the work may be visually very different, it is united by the ideals that lie behind it"? Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the claimed unity will or will not be perceived in the mind of the visitor. It seems after seeing the Exhibition that there will not be general agreement on the existence of an International Arts and Crafts Movement which includes Japan.
For follow-up study: two Arts and Crafts buildings in London, both dating from 1898. Left: The entrance to the Mary Ward House in Tavistock Place, by Smith & Brewer. Right: The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill by Charles Harrison Townsend. Saarinen's Helsinki Central Railway Station (above) bears some striking similarities to it.
But does it matter? The obvious strong point of the Exhibition for most inhabitants of Europe and the United States (where it will travel in 2005-2006) is that they have access to a great wealth of Japanese objects which they are not used to seeing other than in books. People primarily interested in the original British Arts and Crafts movement will not only see a selection of British exhibits which usefully complement those of the William Morris Gallery, but will also undoubtedly find new insights into the long-term influence of that seminal movement in many parts of the world. Contextual and intertextual connections are of course among the daily tools of the art scholar, who will find plenty of hopefully new leads in his perception of that initially typically British artistic phenomenon. Also, the Exhibition seems to set new standards with its electronic facilities. Contemporary museography must include a "website" to accompany any temporary exhibition, but of course not all are of equal value and quality. Though no substitute for the real thing, the superb "virtual tour" offered on the site will be found extremely useful both in preparing a visit and in refreshing memories after the visit, and on top of the general panoramic views, the "buttons" giving access to photographs of the various objects (not all, unfortunately) are a great pleasure to use. The link to the "Arts and Crafts Buildings in the London Area" (see Note 6) is also an excellent idea – very convenient for planning one's next architectural tour of London.
For all these reasons, even if one sometimes does not agree with all their choices, the Curator and organisers are to be warmly congratulated. Needless to say, all those who live within reasonable distance of Indianapolis or San Francisco are strongly encouraged to go and visit the Exhibition in the winter, while less fortunate amateurs of Arts and Crafts will find more than solace in the Victoria and Albert Museum's dedicated website.
Last modified 30 October 2014