Melodrama in Meiji Japan @ National Library of Australia

24 May 2017

A beguiling collection of Japanese Art called ‘Melodrama in Meiji Japan’ has opened at the National Library of Australia. They are woodblock prints known as kuchi-e meaning  opening picture that refers to their placement as frontispiece in Japanese novels to complement the stories of these popular stories that reflected the world of the Meiji period from 1868-1912.

It was a time of great change in Japan as it emerged from a feudal society into a more westernised country. And the melodramatic in these novels is reflected in the unique kuchi-e, all beautifully preserved with lovely colour and fascinating faces of the woodblock prints.

The faces are of lovely woman, none of whom are pictured looking forward, and you can imagine an elegant fan being held just out of the picture ready to hide behind if necessary. Perfection in the dress, hair and makeup shows the geisha ideal, with lush fabrics and decorations that readers loved for the drama, tragedy and intrigue the novels revealed of this era, mainly about the nobility.

Curator, Dr Gary Hickey, has used prints from the donated collection of avid collector, UNSW Emeritus Professor Richard Clough who had worked in Canberra with the National Capital Development Commission and as a landscape architect has Lake Burley Griffin as just one of his creations. But his passion for all things Japanese filled his Sydney home, the substantial collection of kuchi-e among those treasures that now are on display in conjunction with the NLA’s own collection.

Now for a surprise in these prints;  the Seabathing Beauty from 1903 looks a tad risque not because she’s seems to be thinking about a swim in her striped swimsuit, but that it was a machine knitted woollen number – according to Dr Hickey probably Australian wool – that would most likely end up stretched down to her kneecaps. Wet wool is not a good thing to swim in.

Enjoy this exhibition at the NLA until 27 August.