The ceramic collection was begun by Hans Melion (Walter’s father), who was born in Vienna during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph (r. 1848–1916). From a family of collectors, Hans began acquiring Japanese ceramics in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Forced to flee Vienna in 1940, he migrated east, first to Shanghai then Manila, where he was befriended by a community of Anglican missionaries, including a woman named Nellie McKim whose father had been the Anglican bishop of Tokyo. Nellie, a great admirer of Japanese ceramics, encouraged Hans to rebuild his collection and he continued to do so after moving to San Francisco in the 1960s. The Melion collection centers on decorative ceramics that were produced in Japan between the 1880s and 1930s, with a preference for Imari and Kutani pieces. Hans was a connoisseur of underglaze and overglaze techniques, and he was sensitive to the relationship between a pot’s shape and its painted decoration. When he died in the late 1990s, Hans left a bequest of funds to fill gaps (works by unrepresented Imari factories and workshops) in the collection.
Terminology used to describe and distinguish various types of ceramics during this period is often confusing. The most common descriptors are kiln, family, and place names and sometimes these overlap. For example, Imari ceramics are also called Arita or Kakeimon ceramics. Arita is a town located in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island whose principle economic and artistic activity is devoted to the production of high-end overglaze ceramics. Imari is the port from which porcelain was shipped to other parts of Japan and the West. Sometimes these ceramics are identified as Kakeimon after the name of the seventeenth-century potter Sakaida Kakeimon who perfected the technique of overglaze enamel decoration. His kiln was near the town of Arita. Kutani is another place name also located in Kyushu near the city of Kanazawa. But, with a long history of production there are several types of Kutani ware, which are differentiated by age and decorative technique.
The collection brings together some of the finest examples of Japanese ceramics created during this window of time and specificity of place. Many pieces in the collection were produced by the Fukugawa family factory in Arita. It makes high-quality ceramics decorated with exquisite detail and technical perfection that are fit, quite literally, for an emperor. The Fukugawa factory has been the purveyor of Japanese ceramics to the imperial family since 1910.
Unusually, the collection also includes many pairs of ceramics. It is hard enough to find one piece in pristine condition, so imagine the difficulty of finding two! The entire collection is of the highest quality, and the addition of these marvelous ceramics enriches our holdings in immeasurable ways. Future guests to the museum can look forward to seeing a rotating selection in the galleries, and they will likely come away impressed and delighted by these masterpieces of Japanese art.
In describing the origins of their wonderful print collection, John Clum and Walter Melion recall, “One day in a gallery in London about thirty years ago we got the bug and began buying Japanese woodblock prints.” The first was by Hiroshige, but John’s interest soon focused on Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), especially his series 100 Phases of the Moon (1885–92), and Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912), an underappreciated artist recommended by Bruce Coates, who was writing the definitive book on the artist. The purchase of many other prints, particularly diptychs and triptychs, followed.
Both artists’ careers span the decades when Japan was emerging from about 250 years of self-imposed isolation. However, each of them reacted to their changing world in very different ways. Yoshitoshi, although interested in modernization and Westernization, increasingly focused on traditions of the past while Chikanobu emphatically embraced and documented the world around him. The majority of the prints in this gift are by Chikanobu, with a few by his close, but less well-known, contemporaries. Chikanobu’s life spanned the end of the Edo period (1615–1868) and the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912), a time of social unrest, encroachment by Western powers (notably the United States), and the modernization of every aspect of Japanese life, from education and the economy to the electrification of the cities and the writing of a constitution.
In his prints, Chikanobu addressed contemporary life, from images of the Sino-Japanese War to changing fashions. In Singing by the Plum Garden (1887) we see the two worlds of old and new Japan in counter balance. The subject of the print is an evening’s entertainment: Empress Shōken, her son, and her attending ladies enjoy a concert. The Western and modern elements are obvious—the piano and Western dress, chairs, and architecture—but less apparent is the new idea of producing an image of the royal family, something previously forbidden. The more traditional aspects of Japanese life are found in the setting and the pastime of plum blossom viewing, an activity that has deep roots in the Japanese past.
Saigo’s Final Battle at Shiroyama (Shiroyama Oshingeki Saigo Kessen no zu) (1877). Although following the compositional layout of traditional samurai battle scenes, this print also has a modern twist. The scene depicts the famous and near contemporaneous battle of Shiroyama that took place in September 1877 between the rebellious samurai of Satsuma province and the imperial army (seen on the right). The defeat of the Satsuma samurai by a conscripted Japanese army effectively ended the samurai class.
Through these two examples we can see not only Chikanobu’s masterful design sense but also how much he was a man of his times. He straddled two worlds and two narratives but made them seamless. Chikanobu was indeed a master of his medium, and with this gift, we are fortunate to showcase his talent.
Judith A Stubbs. PhD
Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art