Index of Selected Artists in the Collection

Japanese
Coiling Dragon, Meiji period, late 19th century
Bronze
Dragon base: 44 1/4 x 48 1/4 x 28 7/8 in. (112.5 x 122 x 73.5 cm)
Gift of Charles F. Olney, 1904
AMAM 1904.723


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Used for many years as a fountain in the museum's courtyard, this recently restored bronze dragon is an important example of Meiji-period (1868-1912) Japanese sculpture.

This coiling dragon, with head uplifted, originally provided the support for an incense basin that rested on a stylized plume of water spouting from the dragon's mouth. Although currently separated from its top portions, the dragon is still magnificent and powerful in its own right.1 It reveals the technical brilliance and vibrant imagination that characterize much Meiji-period Japanese art.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was accompanied by severe economic turmoil that placed great financial strains on nearly every area of Japanese artistic production.2 Forced to seek patronage wherever they could find it, many artists and craftsmen looked to the West to find markets for their works. The Japanese government supported this endeavor in the hope of enhancing the reputation of Japanese industry and culture within the international community. As a result, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a significant portion of Japan's cultural economy shifted its energies to the production of export goods for the European and American markets. Although many of the techniques, forms, and decorative motifs remained the same as in traditional Japanese arts, Meiji craftsmen also deliberately incorporated qualities intended to appeal to Western sensibilities. Hence many Meiji export objects were elaborately crafted and ornately decorated in styles that harmonized with the Victorian and Edwardian tastes dominant in Western culture at that time.3

This sculpture is not signed or dated, but is attributable to the Meiji period on the basis of its size and style. One of the main modes of Japanese export during the Meiji period was through the World's Fairs and Expositions that were held every few years in the West at that time. Many of the Japanese objects sent to the West for these occasions are characterized by their monumental size, rococo style, and/or opulent visual effects intended to immediately attract the attention of viewers. Although there are no records to prove this piece was ever exhibited at a World's Fair, its grand scale, energetic form, ornate decoration, and stereotypically "Oriental" subject all support such a possibility.

For decades this dragon was installed as a decorative fountain in the courtyard of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The years of exposure gradually took their toll on the piece, and in 1995 the badly damaged sculpture was removed for renovation. The restorers removed the iron rods and core material that had caused the bronze to split, repaired the cracks and corroded areas, and repatinated the dragon so that it approached its original color.4 Upon completion of this work, the whole sculpture came alive again as a vibrant example of Meiji-period Japanese metalwork.

C. Mason

Biography
None.

Provenance
With C. A. Seltzer, Cleveland, until 1895

Collection Charles F. Olney, Cleveland

Bequeathed by him to the museum

Exhibitions
None.

Literature
Mason, Charles Q. "Charles Olney, Charles Freer and the History of Asian Art Collecting in America." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 49, no. 2 (1996), pp. 44-45.

Technical Data
The body of the dragon is cast in four main pieces: head, upper body, central body, and tail, each attached to the others by sleeve and socket joints secured with copper pins and molten zinc. Many of the decorative elements such as the spines, horns, and eyes were cast separately and attached with pins. The water spout forms a second element of the sculpture, and appears to have been cast as a single piece. The incense basin is the third element, and is composed of two main pieces (the basin and lid), with some of the additional decorative elements on these pieces also cast separately. The dragon was severely damaged by years of exposure, but the cracks and corrosion have been repaired, and the surface repatinated. The water spout and basin were never placed outside, and so are truer to the original color of the piece.

Footnotes
1. The museum owns the water plume and basin, but for conservation reasons, they are not currently displayed with the dragon.

2. The Meiji Restoration refers to the overthrow of the last Shogun by forces loyal to the emperor Mutshuhito (who took Meiji as the name of his reign period). It marked the end of Japan's traditional feudal society and the beginning of its development into a modern nation-state.

3. For more information about Meiji art, consult Frederick Baekeland, Imperial Japan: The Art of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) (exh. cat., Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., 1980).

4. The restoration was performed by Daedalus, Inc., and completed in April, 1996.