In the final third of the Nineteenth Century, the West—and Britain in particular—became fascinated with the art and craft of the Japanese (who recently had ended 250 years of self-imposed isolation from the West). For the first time in generations, Japanese-made objets were available in the West, at least to those who could afford them. Impressionist painters (like Monet), musical composers (like Gilbert & Sullivan) and home furnishings designers (like Christopher Dresser and William Morris) were enchanted by this “newly re-discovered” trove of Asian design inspiration. Such “Aesthetes” borrowed heavily from the Japanese—adapting and re-interpreting liberally—in creating a school of Western design known as Japonisme, a major component of the larger Aesthetic Movement.
In a time when Victorian art and design were expected to provide moral guidance and character improvement for the observer, the Aesthetes advocated the maxim “Art for Art’s Sake Alone.” The only responsibility of art, they contended, was for it to be beautiful. Morality, sentiment, and historical lessons in works of art were not required or encouraged.
Amongst the influential characteristics of Japanese art and design was the use of natural lifeforms (like insects, birds, plants and flowers) in a stylized, restrained and graphic manner. The Japanese also used a lot of open (undecorated) space, strong line and asymmetry—which contradicted the convention passed-down from the Classical and Gothic canons.
The cast iron desk accessories pictured above were made in the late 19th century and bear the strong graphic dimension typical of the Aesthetic Movement.
More about the Aesthetic Movement tomorrow.
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