Samurais, sumo and sushi
To people of my generation, Japan is a continuing source of amazing things, from the jaw-droppingly amazing to downright bizarre. There are the obvious cultural breakthroughs such as Nintendo, manga and sushi. And there are the slightly weirder, yet no less intriguing phenomena, such as Godzilla, girlfriend pillows and tentacle erotica – yes, that actually exists.
But, because we’re so flooded with information about what’s happening there right now, we sometimes forget that there is so much more to Japanese culture. So if you’re reading this and feel like you’re part of the generation that only knows the modern side of Japan, then head on down to the National Museum of Denmark and check out the exhibition Girl With Parasol (Pigen og Parasollen), a beautiful collection of photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century.
In the late 19th century, photography was regarded as not only high art, but as a sign of civilisation and technology. Felice Beato, an Italian living in Japan, developed the technology of hand-colouring photographs and went on to popularise the art form in Japan. The hand-coloured images not only became popular among tourists as souvenirs, but became incredibly popular as nostalgic art that represented the traditional Japan, a country that was rapidly changing and developing all the time. The images are incredibly beautiful and dreamlike due to the hand-colouring technique, but also present an amazing view of Japanese culture and life which, although somewhat skewed by orientalism, is still incredibly insightful.
All of the images in this exhibition are hand-coloured and, at a quick glance, look like a strange mixture of old photography and dreamy aquarelle paintings – probably because that’s pretty much what they are. But it’s still strange to look at because the results are so unusual: a combination of a floating, dreamlike state and the precise outlines and accuracy of photography. There are also pictures from the Zoological Garden in Copenhagen in 1902, when 22 Japanese performed for the Danish public: there were geishas, samurais and sumo wrestlers for the people to marvel at.
However, there is more to this exhibition than just a view of the old Japan. Photography has remained an integral part of Japanese culture, and in Asia the public photo booth, or ‘purikura’ as it’s called in Japan, is immensely popular. In Asia they do not serve as a mere necessity to produce passport photos, but are rather seen as a fun pastime in which you can create and alter images of yourself. In Girl With Parasol, there are also large posters of young Japanese girls taken in photo booths, which create a stark contrast with the old, small photographs of geishas.
The exhibition features interviews with people who have frequented the purikura in order to try to understand its popularity. There is also an actual purikura in the museum so that visitors can try it out and have their own picture taken and printed on stickers.
The exhibition is not only beautiful and educational, but a perfect idea for a family outing – as I learned when I visited on a Sunday morning. The purikura sticker booth is fun for the whole family to try out and create some stickers that will look fun in the family photo album. There is also a corner where you can dress up in traditional Japanese clothes and have your picture taken. Aesthetically pleasing art, interactive play and a rich cultural history, and all for free – if you only leave your house once this weekend, let it be for this.
National Museum of Denmark, Ny Vestergade 10, Cph K; ends April; open Tue-Sun 10:00-17:00, closed Mon; free adm; www.natmus.dk