Amid the trappings of 20th-century Japan, samurai-born Baroness Shidzue Ishimoto would remember the wholesale exhumation of ancient ritual for the 1912 funeral of Emperor Meiji. By a tradition two millennia old, the last rites for this steamship-era potentate, who sported the epaulets and goatee of Napoleon III and transformed his nation from agrarian backwater to world power, took place at midnight, electric light being banned in favor of pine torches. Oxen pulled the hearse, followed by a milelong procession of thousands of attendants in antique silk costumes. That night, General Count Nogi, a proponent of reform and devoted imperial official, also turned back the clock: He and his wife wrote poems, then committed suicide.
The funeral of Japan's first modern monarch says much about the divided nature of his nation--how, after centuries of isolation, Japan could embrace modern ways, yet overnight fall back on its traditional myths and mysteries, poised tensely between past and present as between East and West. In turn, the often gaudy art created during Meiji's reign, as exemplified by Portland Art Museum's stunning new exhibition, Splendors of Imperial Japan, seems to bear witness to that nervous uncertainty. The work strove to scale heights of technical bravado sure to gain the approval of foreigners avid for Asian exotica that, amid the commercial obvious, managed to insert a touch of the poetic inscrutable. The high point of this technique came between 1875-1890 (the so-called mid-Meiji period), when artists paired astonishing technical mastery and delicate rococo whimsy with an elegant reinterpretation of traditional Japanese design not equaled since.
Thanks to the skillful curatorship of Donald Jenkins (the genius behind PAM's aesthetically and commercially successful Imperial Tombs of China exhibition), Splendors is no chronological tour--that would not do these masterworks or their era justice. Instead, we are treated to a sophisticated random survey of how a secluded society creatively responded to influences from the outside world, only to rediscover its own riches. It's fascinating to see how early Meiji exuberance, rife with funny monkeys, frogs and grimacing demigods, smoothed out into broader, more homogenous stylistic expression later on, reflecting increased commercial success abroad. The setting for these 350-plus craft treasures of bronze, gold, enamel, wood, silk and ivory could not be more appropriate. Soft yet focused lighting exploits intensity of colors and intricacies of carving; touches of bamboo, Shirakawa sand and wooden screens evoke Zen gardens; the layout meanders streamlike from gallery to gallery .
Lest I give more away, suffice to say that those who enjoy supreme craftsmanship married to transcendent beauty will find plenty of both among these many splendors.
1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. $6-$10. Closes Sept. 22.
Emperor Meiji, who ruled from 1868 to 1912, was the 122nd Mikado of Japan; as a direct descendant of the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu, he was worshiped as divinity.