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Japan at the Dawn of Modernism

Exhibition At the Presidio

How long does it take to transform a traditionalist Eastern nation into a modern Westernized one? For Japan, it took roughly forty-four years. During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan went through a culture-wide shift of ideals that sent her charging into a world predominantly governed by Western powers.

Prince Matsuhito inherited Japan's throne at the age of 15. Disturbed by the emerging trend of Western powers cutting up and colonizing chunks of Asia, he decided to go with the "if you can't beat them, join them" defense. He envisioned a colonial Japan in which the cultural identities of other modernized nations became integral parts of Japan's own culture. Architecture, clothing, politics, hairstyles - nothing was sacred enough to resist the engine of Westernization, not when it was the Emperor himself who implemented the process.

The current exhibit at the Officer's Club in the Presidio, part of the new "At The Presidio" program, is called "Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age". During the Meiji Era, artists were hired by Emperor Meiji to produce woodblock paintings that would record Japan's transformation. This exhibit is comprised almost exclusively of seventy woodblock prints that were used as propaganda for the New Japan.

The prints in this exhibit have been selected from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection, which were recently donated to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. According to Randolph Delehanty, the Presidio Trust's historian, "These prints are one-of-a-kind, in that they're traditional in technique, but modern in subject matter." Emperor Meiji wanted to legitimize his new vision of Japan by using one of her most traditional forms of art to capture the essence of a modernized nation.

The styles and subject matter of the prints change over the course of the Meiji Era. Early on, artists were more interested in still shots of the New Japan, illustrating such things as the Westernization of clothing, hairstyles, and customs. On some prints, new technologies and architecture, such as bridges and factories, are juxtaposed with traditional images of Japan.

As the Meiji Era progressed so too did Japan's desire to move away from isolationism and into colonialism. In 1894 she declared war upon China in order to guarantee the independence of Korea and make a statement about the New Japan. Then, between the years of 1904-05, Japan fought against Russia for control of Korea and Manchuria. Japan won this struggle over its first Western enemy and in doing so gained worldwide respect as a modern superpower with colonies in Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria.

In contrast to the earlier woodblock prints, which strove to show new styles of things, the wartime prints are almost cartoonish in the action they display. Japan's military glory - generals sitting on horses in the blinding snow, enemy ships sinking into the sea - is depicted in these later woodblock prints in almost comic book detail.

A large, detailed timeline of the period is hung on the wall early in the tour, and this is essential in understanding the scope of events that take place during Meiji Era. The historically informative audio tour is well-produced and helps tie the exhibit together.

When all is said and done, this exhibit is really an in-depth history lesson. However, the vibrant woodblock prints are more beautiful than anything you could hope to find in a history book. Given the influence Japan has upon our modern world, this exhibit is definitely worth checking out.

Japan at the Dawn of Modernism runs until January 21, 2002 at the Presidio Officer's Club Exhibition Hall. For information call 415.561.5086.