Japan at the Fair, 1876–1920

by Chelsea Foxwell, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Chicago

last edited on Wed. June 10 2015

From the 1880s through the early decades of the twentieth century, Japan’s international exposition displays were large and multi-faceted.

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Japan had the largest total floor space of any nation. This included an elegant Japanese-style building (the Ho-o-den) on the Wooded Isle in Hyde Park (today the site of Osaka Garden) and a prominent display in the Hall of the Fine Arts.

It was unprecedented for the works of a non-European culture to be featured in the Hall of Fine Arts, where oil paintings and sculpture predominated. The Japanese art made for the world’s fairs tended to reiterate certain themes, such as the makers’ high degree of technical mastery and embrace of natural subjects, which were easy for American viewers to appreciate.

Yet the images of Japan at the world’s fairs were diverse, as reflected in the variety of the objects on view as part of the Smart Museum’s 40th anniversary exhibition Objects and Voices.

Produced between the 1870s and 1920s, these objects reflect the different styles, technologies, and geopolitical vectors of their era. They also remind us of the many ways that Japan was unofficially represented at the fairs, from the proverbial gift shop of affordable, newly made wares to the presence of artists like Toshio Aoki, who emigrated to California in the 1880s and developed his own distinctive approach and iconography.

A version of this article was originally published in the gallery guide to Objects and Voices. Drop by the Smart on June 11 and make your own distinctive art as part of the program Japan in Hyde Park.

This whole process of [Japan] opening up and establishing closer ties with the West happened concurrent with the development of the World’s Fair as an institution. It was about realizing the power and importance of visual representation across cultures.” — Chelsea Foxwell

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