In Childe Hassam’s beguiling 1912 painting “Bowl of Goldfish,” an American woman dressed in a Japanese kimono pauses near a bowl of goldfish to look through a window at the lush garden outside.
This purely pleasurable image has a disturbing undertone, said Crocker chief curator Scott Shields, since both the fish and the woman are somehow trapped, cut off from the natural world outside the window.
One of nearly 200 objects in “JapanAmerica: Points of Contact, 1876-1970” at the Crocker Art Museum, Hassam’s painting epitomizes the aesthetic influence Japanese art and culture had on American art through five World Expositions held on the American continent between 1876 and 1939.
At the same time, the exhibition, organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., looks at how America’s manufacturing and technological advancements blended with superb Japanese craftsmanship to build Japan into an industrialized world power after World War II. That cross-pollination informed the futuristic 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, the first on Japanese soil.
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(Note: Internationally known Sacramento sculptor Gerald Walburg exhibited his work in Osaka’s Expo ’70.)
“JapanAmerica” offers an encapsulated history of art and design over a nearly 100-year period in which Japanese aesthetics intermingled with Western movements such as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. Many of the objects in the show are adorned with images of flora and fauna based on sketchbook designs by Hokusai.
Walking through the exhibit, you see a Japanese-made, Western-looking silver teapot with a dragon spout; an American-made child’s wicker rocker with a Japanese fan motif for its back; a stunning monumental Rookwood vase decorated with a slip-glazed dragon motif by Kataro Shirayamadani, and a Tiffany dragonfly lamp by Clara Driscoll, Tiffany’s leading lamp designer.
The show also includes two crazy quilts, a form inspired, said Shields, by the crazed glazing on Japanese ceramics; elegantly designed books and quaint trade cards, one with a kimono-clad woman using a Singer sewing machine; and an 1885 folding screen with life-size portraits of three well-to-do American women in Japanese dress by Yata Torakichi.
For Americans in the late 19th century, the possession of Japanese objects, like an intricately made porcelain vase with a flamboyant blue dragon by Kato Tomotaro, meant that you had good taste, Shields said.
“JapanAmerica” is strong in paintings and prints by American artists who, like Hassam, were influenced by the craze for all things Japanese. Magnificent portraits of women in kimonos include Charles Sprague Pearce’s 1883 oil “A Cup of Tea,” Robert Henri’s stunning life-sized 1909 oil “The Blue Kimono,” Mark Tobey’s rich pastel on paper “Portrait of Mrs. Edgar Ames” and “Japanese Woman Sewing,” a turn-of-the-19th century oil by Lilla Cabot Perry, who was related by marriage to Adm. Matthew Perry, the man who opened Japan to the West in 1853.
Among the many stellar prints are Hiroshige’s 1858 color woodcut of a giant wave with Mount Fuji in the distance, J.A.M. Whistler’s evocative 1878 lithotint “Nocturne,” Mary Cassat’s 1894 etching “Peasant Mother and Child,” Hassam’s 1915 etching “The White Kimono” and magical color woodcuts of Japanese scenes by Arthur Wesley Dow and Bertha Lum, who deserve to be better known than they are.
In the hallway outside the main exhibition space are fascinating modern woodcuts by Japanese artists Kioshi Saito, Fumi Kitaoka and Shinagawa Takumi.
An extraordinary series of four large-scale woodcuts of Buddhist masters by Shiko Munakata, the darling of the American Abstract Expressionist scene in New York, ushers you out of the show. The impression you are left with is one of admiration for the sheer beauty of the objects on view.
“JapanAmerica” is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 296-page scholarly catalog with informative essays about the fairs and the shaping of America’s idea of Japanese life through its arts.
JapanAmerica: Points of Contact, 1876-1970
When: Through Sunday, May 21; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Cost: $5-$10, free for members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Day.”
Information: 916-808-7000; crockerartmuseum.org