La Japonaise and Orientalism


Though politics and religion are as dominant a theme in art as anything you can put up against them, they are still taboo in polite conversation. So, I will try and keep this rambling, reactionary soapbox rant focused on the art side of things.

For those that missed or (wisely) ignored this nothing of a story, here is a quick primer:

La Japonaise, Monet’s masterpiece featuring Camille in a blonde wig and beautiful kimono, has recently returned to Boston and the MFA. It is part of their permanent collection but has not seen the walls in many, many months because it was first being restored and then on loan to an exhibition in Japan. The piece itself was done as commentary, bordering on satire, of Western Europe’s brief obsession with Japanese culture in the late 19th century. Though the blonde wig and smiling face depict a conscious view of Orientalism at the time, it cannot be seen as too satirical considering that Monet’s home, to this day, has walls covered in Japanese woodblock prints.

During the paintings short stay in Japan, they had a good natured event to promote the museum and further the exposure to Western artwork and the impressionist movement. It was called Kimono Wednesdays, and viewers were encouraged to wear kimonos and have their pictures taken with the painting.

It was a huge success.

(A great example of the use of a kimono in western painting, by Gary David Hoffmann)

So when the painting returned to its home here in Boston, the MFA decided to continue the event, encouraging members and visitors and anyone else to come and enjoy this beautiful painting while wearing a kimono.

They had it on Wednesdays as well, which is also their free admission day. And that was their undoing.

I can’t imagine a mindset that wants so badly to be outraged and protest and stand for a cause but looks out at the world and thinks, damn, nothing going wrong here, guess I’ll manufacture an issue. I know, I know, that is not fair. It’s not about all the woes of the world, but their proximity and relevance to the outraged.

Faux outrage is the downfall of our society. There is so much to fix, but the self-serving and self-advancing bullshit causes of the young and uninformed muddies the water and gives empowerment to the enemies of progress and the people who think we live in an overly PC world. Sigh…

Anyway, a couple of protesters showed up.

Seriously, that’s it. About two people with signs and a couple of their friends who were there for moral support. Sadly, this wouldn’t have happened if they had Kimono Thursdays and the protesters had to pay $20 to get in.

(another piece by Hoffmann, incorporating many Japanese aesthetics)

And here is the real news: There will always be a few dummies. Always. They made the people uncomfortable and called the people who were there to see this masterpiece racist and claimed the museum was promoting Asian stereotypes. Fine, engage them in conversation (or don’t) and move on. I’m not mad at them. But then, the MFA, whose skin is apparently a lot thinner than the new linen backing the freshly restored painting, caved and cancelled the event.

And that’s my problem. And theirs.

This was a non-story, but the second they changed their plans, it was an admission of guilt and that there was some misdeed. And all the news organizations in the area picked up on it. The Globe has been running stories almost daily about it. Two protesters is not a story, but a museum admitting to prejudice absolutely is.

There will always be dummies. Always. Just do your best to ignore them.

And, for the record, if one culture looks to celebrate another, it is not racism. In fact, the appropriation of another culture is not racism, but actually the cure for racism. Exposure and experience is a good thing. If a restaurant in Tokyo does a Wednesday evening where they play Rock & Roll and encourage their patrons to wear blue jeans, it is not racism. It is not an attempt to reduce a culture to a costume.

Artists have been incorporating themes and aspects of other cultures and traditions since art was about smearing blood on walls and carving phallic stone monoliths. And it has helped bridge the gap of space and language far, far more than it has hurt.

(a corner of my own studio)

The MFA botched this one.

They made it a story and gave a megaphone to the whispering voice of dissent that was let, free of charge, into their beautiful gallery.

Then again, maybe there is no such thing as bad press. Maybe having this non-story in the paper each morning will spark interest in this beautiful piece of history. I have stood in front of this painting and admired it more times than I can count and even I feel energized to do so again.

As always, thanks for reading.

Ryan Black