The Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition of Meiji textiles, Threads of Silk and Gold, opened last week and I expect you’re wondering whether you need to go all the way to Oxford (an hour on the train! From Paddington!) to see it or if you can get by with just reading the reviews and looking at photos. The answer is, you absolutely have to go. I’ll tell you why.
Because you’ll get to see two rooms-full of embroideries, resist-dyed silk and velvet panels, tapestries, and appliqué ranging in size from large-scale wall hangings and folding screens to small framed panels. They were made for the Western market in the Meiji era (which lasted from 1868 to1912), and most are on loan from the Kiyomizu-Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, so you probably won’t ever get a chance like this again.
Embroidery is the largest section of this exhibition and rightly so. The skill involved is breathtaking and is the reason why you need to actually go there – you have to stand in front of the real thing to appreciate how the texture makes them come alive in a way a flat painted picture or photograph never can.
Get close up (which you can, as they’re displayed without glass) and see the tiny individual stitches that put the sparkle in the eye of the peacock, the furriness in the tiger’s coat, the delicate shades in the flower petals, the gleam in the scales of the dragon and the majesty in the feathers of the eagle.Then stand back and wonder at the sensation of depth, achieved with different thickness of threads and stitches, and how the way the light changes as you move around completely changes the way they look.
Yes, they were embroidered by real people, not machines (men, not women), using satin stitch for the foundation layers and then techniques including long and short stitches for fur, feathers and flowers, staggered diagonals for curved lines, couched metallic threads and round knots in clusters for texture.
A nice idea at the exhibition is having a bit of embroidery you can touch to feel the texture as well as see it.
The seond room holds tapestries, Yuzen-dyed textiles which use stencils and rice-paste and Oshi-e.
Don’t miss this incredible oshi-e screen depicting the traditional four classes of Japan – samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants, with merchants at the bottom of the social scale. Oshi-e is a technique where paper or silk wadding is covered with painted silk and pasted onto a background to give a three-dimensional effect.
So get on the train. Go and see the exhibition in the morning then stop off for a pub lunch – we went to the King’s Head where I had faggots and peas (for American readers, faggots are traditional meat patties) – and then go back to the Ashmolean and look round their permanent collections which are beautifully displayed in a light-filled multi-level space. If you’re in the Japan Society take a friend and use their two-for-one voucher. Oh, and buy the book – it’s beautifully produced with lots of information and glossy illustrations and you get £5 off if you show your exhibition ticket when you buy it.
The exhibition runs until 27 January 2013. The trains ran on time the day we went.
PS Even though the exhibition is now closed, you can still buy the beautifully illustrated book online from the Ashmolean shop.