Dragons, peacocks, lions, monkeys, ducks and even sparrows have descended on the Ashmolean for Threads of Silk and Gold – an exhibition of ornamental Japanese textiles form the Meiji period (1868-1912).
Many of the pieces either reflect Western influences or were made to showcase Japanese craftsmanship at international exhibitions and “East meets West” is one of the major themes of the exhibition.
The larger, factory made, pieces are given their own space where you can stand back to get the full impact or get up close to examine the thread-work, thanks to a bold decision not to display them behind glass. The quality of the work is breathtaking: whether it’s fur, feathers, flowers or wood - at first glance "Shinkyo Bridge" looks more like marquetry than embroidery.
Although the quality and variety of work makes it difficult to choose favourites, I was particularly struck by the high drama of "Eagle Attacking a Family of Monkeys" and the visually intense "Cranes, Wisteria and Cycads", where I detected more than a hint of manga.
The smaller pieces are less dramatic and are mainly naturalistic studies of birds, plants, animals and landscapes using a variety of techniques. Exceptions to the rural idyll include the musical skeletons (just plain odd) and a screen showing the daily activities of merchants, farmers, artisans and samurai worked in oshi-e, a type of dyed, painted appliqué (and one of my personal favourites).