Doing Ironic Irony Ironically: Play-Acting Satires of Orientalist Japonisme?

Update at end
Evan Smith of “Big, Red, and Shiny” reports:

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has found itself mired in controversy over an in-gallery program responding to Claude Monet’s La Japonaise, a portrait of the artist’s wife Camille clad in a kimono and posing with a fan. Replicas of the red kimono are available during free hours on Wednesday evenings through July for visitors to try on in the gallery, providing the opportunity to “channel your inner Camille #Monet.”

In response to protests, the museum issued a flier which appears to have been written backwards:

Key Messages

  • The MFA celebrates art from all cultures and time periods. “Kimono Wednesdays” are an effor to engage visitors with Monet’s portrait and our current celebration of Japanese art and culture throughout the Museum with the exhibitions “Hokusai” and “in the Wake” and our recently reopened Tenshin-En Garden (this year marks the 125th Anniversary of the Museum’s Department of Asian Art).
  • These replica kimonos were made by a well-known kimono maker in Kyoto for a commision by Japanese broadcaster NHK for the travelling exhibition “Looking East,” which explored how the art and culture of Japan inspired 19th-century artists, like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. The kimonos were available to try on at Museums in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya.
  • The chance to try on a kimono (more accurately uchikake) — just like Camille Monet’s in La Japonaise — presents an opportunity to inform our visitors about “japonisme” and the influence of Japanese art and culture on Monet and other Impressionists. It provides an opportunity for visitors to consider how heavy the robe is; how it feels to wear it; what choices the artist made in creating the pose; and how he used paint to capture the effects of the textile.
  • Monet appreciated Japanes art and had built a personal collection of Japanese wood block prints and theatrical costumes. The kimono that Monet’s wife is wearing in the painting is presumably one from Monet’s own collection.

Isn’t this racist/orientalist?

  • We don’t think this is racist. We hope visitors come away with a better understanding of how Japanese art influenced the Impressionists like Monet. However, we respect everyone’s opinion and welcome dialogue about art and culture in the museum

I feel like this is cultural appropriation, and I think you should stop having these events.

  • The Museum is a place for dialogue and we appreciate your feedback. At this time we are planning to continue “Kimono Wednesdays” through the month of July, and hope it prompts many conversations about art and culture in Japan and the West.

What is Japonisme?

  • Beginning in the late 19th century, a craze for all things Japanese brought a radical shift in Western art that came to be known as japonisme. By the 1870s, japonisme had engulfed Paris and Monet’s La Japonaise is a commentary on the Parisian fad for all things Japanese. Camille’s blod wig was meant to emphasize her Western identity

Morgan Pitelka noted the echoes of the Lords of the Samurai parody “Lord, it’s the Samurai” (his review here), and some other good commentaries. There is also, being 2015, a tumblr blog collecting materials about and objecting to the exhibit, Stand Against Yellowface. (which would have saved me typing the above transcript, had I found it a half-hour earlier).

The museum’s position seems to me weak in any number of ways:

  • The relationship between Japanese woodblock prints and Impressionism is well-documented, easy to illustrate in a respectful fashion. There’s nothing necessary about using La Japonaise in this way
  • If the goal is to illustrate the physicality of a work, there are innumerable works that could get the “living picture” treatment. This seems clearly an attempt to capitalize on social media and stunt replications of famous artworks, but selection and execution count.
  • The museum clearly thinks that invoking Japanese sources exonerates it from racist implications. It does complicate the question somewhat, but it’s not at all clear to me that ‘authenticity’ excuses bad behavior.
  • Is it unequivocal that Monet’s work is a critique of Japonisme? I don’t know enough about the work to be sure, but there’s a huge range of satire: it can be ‘poking fun’ without seriously critiquing; it can delegitimize it’s target by exposing hypocrisy/cruelty/etc.; Monet’s work seems firmly in the former category, at best.
  • If Monet’s work is a critique of Japonisme, is replication of the scene in any coherent way an extension or replication of the intent?

Finally, and most interestingly, I think, the Museum’s invocation of ‘dialogue’ shows the institutional failure to truly understand their role and effect in the 21st century cultural environment. Museums are classic ‘top down’ educational institutions: they show, but rarely look around; they lecture, but rarely listen; they educate, but rarely learn. “Interactive” in a museum context means playing an educational game or getting to share an emotional response that gets seen for a few hours before the slate is wiped clean for new patrons. “Community engagement” means letting schoolchildren look at stuff, or having a quiet Thursday afternoon lecture for retirees and scholars. And once a work is ‘a classic’ it has to be treated lightly, justified, preserved as a valued attraction, not seriously critiqued.

It’s not going to work for much longer.

Update: MFA has modified the program to eliminate the playacting: We apologize for offending any visitors, and welcome everyone to participate in these programs on Wednesday evenings, when Museum admission is free. We look forward to continuing the Museum’s long-standing dialogue about the art, culture and influence of Japan.

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