In 1543, three Portuguese sailors accidentally dropped anchor in Japan. It was probably the first time Japanese people had ever seen Europeans. They thought the strangers were odd-looking – big noses, big eyes – and took to calling them “nanban,” or “southern barbarians.”
“That came from Chinese cultural tradition, you’re at the center of the universe and everyone else is outsiders,” says Denise Patry Leidy, the curator of Asian art at Yale University Art Gallery.
But the Japanese seemed to like the nanban, as well as the products they brought with them on their ships. A new exhibit at the New Haven museum focuses on the period between 1550 and 1650, when Japan began importing goods from Europe and other areas of the world, as well as borrowing foreign ideas and incorporating them into their own art, crafts and household items.
“This is the period in which the world became the world. It was the age of exploration,” Patry Leidy says.
Two fascinating painted screens, each with four vertical panels, make up the centerpiece. The early 17th-century painting shows a Western ship coming into port in Japan, filled with a variety of races: European, African and Indian. The gaudily dressed seamen, as well as black-robed priests wearing long rosaries, are watched with shy curiosity by Japanese men and women peeking out of windows.
“They did what we all do when we meet people we don’t know for the first time and they look completely different from us,” Patry Leidy says. “You say, ‘Wow, who are these people?’”
Jesuits began actively proselytizing in Japan. The influence of Christianity can be seen in some artworks. A portable shrine of the Madonna and child was made in Japan by a student of Giovanni Niccolò, a Jesuit priest who traveled to Japan with future saint Francis Xavier and who founded Japan’s “Seminary of Painters.” The quintessentially Western image is enhanced by a quintessentially Asian medium, lacquer.
European-style fall-front cabinets – small writing desks that folded up into a portable box, the 16th-century version of a briefcase – became popular in Japan and elsewhere in the world. Three of the cabinets are on exhibit, showing how Asian artisans took European ideas and made them their own. A “campaign jacket,” worn over armor, has a Chinese pattern on the front, a Japanese pattern on the back and is lined with purple European wool.
Sometimes, Japan did more than making foreign ideas their own. They made people their own, by force if necessary. Korean potters were kidnapped and brought to Japan during the Tea Bowl Wars of 1592-1598 because they liked their style of pottery. Generations later, the potters were allowed to go back to Korea, but they chose to stay. The land of the tea ceremony had become home to them.
JAPAN’S GLOBAL BAROQUE, 1550-1650 is at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. in New Haven, until May 21. artgallery.yale.edu.