The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has found itself mired in controversy over an in-gallery program responding to Claude Monet’s La Japonaise, a portrait of the artist’s wife Camille clad in a kimono and posing with a fan. Replicas of the red kimono are available during free hours on Wednesday evenings through July for visitors to try on in the gallery, providing the opportunity to “channel your inner Camille #Monet.”
Unsurprisingly, the educational program/PR stunt has been met with negative reactions. A Facebook post by the museum announcing the photo opportunity drew dozens of comments by users who found the idea “vilely racist” and an example of “cultural appropriation at its finest.” A demonstration group, Stand Against Yellow-Face @ the MFA, is organizing in-gallery protests each Wednesday evening, with demonstrators carrying signage calling out the museum and the participating public for uncritically upholding traditions that diminish non-Western cultures and people to the level of props and stereotypes.
The painting in question, a work from 1876, is a singular example of Orientalism, a tradition in Western art that broadly caricatures regions as disparate as North Africa and East Asia with the aim of cultivating a Romantic visual language around Western cultural imperialism. Japonisme, the particular subset of Orientalism that Monet’s canvas depicts, is a loose interpretation of Japanese culture by French aesthetes marked by ornamentation, hyper-femininity and a sense of escapism bordering on pure fantasy. In La Japonaise the artificiality of the genre is underscored by the blonde wig Camille donned when posing for the painting in order to emphasize her whiteness, contrasting her body to the Otherness of her garments and surroundings.
Following the initial outcry, the museum produced a one-page handout responding to visitors’ concerns. Leading with an explanation of the Japanese origins of the replica kimonos (made for an exhibition on Orientalism in Western art at the MFA’s satellite museum in Nagoya), and the significant visibility of Japanese art and culture in the museum’s current exhibition offerings, the statement flatly lays out the museum’s position on the matter: “We don’t think this is racist.” The text goes on to define Japonisme and explain the painting as a commentary on the fad rather than a product of it. An official public statement has not yet been made available elsewhere, and it seems likely the museum would prefer the conversation to remain in the galleries and on social media, where it will quietly fizzle out.
The museum’s didactic text for La Japonaise emphasizes Monet’s awareness of Orientalism, presenting the painting as an ironic comment rather than a symptom. But if the argument is that the artist, and by extension participants in the museum’s Kimono Wednesdays photo-op, are “in on the joke,” that cultural appropriation is acceptable so long as it is served with a dose of irony, we risk giving a pass to anyone clever enough to winkingly acknowledge their prejudices while freely exercising them. This pervasive cultural tendency is no less destructive for its disarming effect. Perhaps Monet’s intention was to critique his country’s voracious appetite for a fantasy-ideal of Japan, but that entire line of thinking is erased by the museum’s approach. At best it is an uncritical way of engaging viewers with the work, and in the case of this particular painting, it does more harm than good.
As an encyclopedic museum, the MFA is charged with housing and displaying a cultural history shaped by dynamics of power, oppression, subjugation and bloodshed, dynamics that were largely racially justified. The very narratives of Western art history are laced with racist ideologies that live on today, and a major responsibility of art historical institutions in the twenty-first century is to acknowledge that subtext and teach it through objects. We can enjoy the beauty of things, we can enjoy ourselves in museums, but we also need to recognize the deeper implications of the cultural material on view. I have no doubts that the museum’s curatorial staff understand this charge. But when the responsibilities of dissemination and connection-building are handed over to Communications and PR specialists, that higher responsibility is too easily dismissed.
With one of the best departments of Japanese art in the United States, a sister museum in Japan, and cultural programs that bring Japanese artists, scholars and performers to Boston regularly, it’s surprising and disappointing that the museum didn’t create a more culturally sensitive learning experience, perhaps by inviting someone with more qualification than their College Ambassadors to handle the kimonos and explain their significance to the public, an effort that could have elevated the project beyond an offensive game of dress-up. That an idea like this could slip past the better judgments of so many shows not only how massive an institution the MFA is, but also how significant, how carefully considered every choice must be when tasked with the education of the public.
With the movement towards popularized museum experiences as a strategy of accessibility, we can expect to see a trend continue, wherein an object with a complicated history and fraught implications for the present will be reduced to a thing of spectacle at the expense of meaningful dialogue. The MFA should absolutely be pointing visitors to La Japonaise, but they should be asking why the image appeals to popular sensibilities, rather than simply celebrating it. They should be asking what this fascination says about our past as well as our current cultural condition.
It’s also worth considering why a kimono demonstration would be connected to Monet’s portrait of his wife, when the museum has any number of images of Japanese women donning the garment throughout their collection. If this were simply about an interest in the garment and its cultural context, the Japanese galleries would have made a far better site for such an experience. In the terrific Hokusai exhibition now on view, a painted hanging scroll by Katushika Oi, Hokusai’s daughter, features three women—a courtesan, a geisha and a townswoman—playing musical instruments together while wearing lavishly patterned kimonos. An image of three women from different social classes of 19th-century Japan—by an artist who is herself a Japanese woman—could provide visitors a meaningful entry into ideas around costume, embodiment and representation. The MFA’s choice to highlight a Western woman donning Japanese customs, and their encouragement of visitors to do the same, speaks to a different and far more problematic kind of embodiment.
Conversely, many other examples of Orientalism, cultural appropriation, and racist caricaturing can be found on display in the museum, and while their role as objects of beauty or entertainment have dissipated with the maturation of cultural consciousness, their value as tools to understand the lens of Western thought and bias are invaluable. La Japonaise continues its life as an uninterrogated object of beauty at the expense of an important lesson.
In August, the museum will open an exhibition on the influence of Asian art on the colonial Americas, displaying works created in the Americas as facsimiles of trade goods imported from Asia. The exhibition may provide an opportunity to see how the complex network of cultural exchange and exploitation that defined the Age of Colonization was visualized and represented in objects, and how completely its evidence permeated everyday life then, just as it does now. With any luck the complexity of that story will be handled with a bit more care as it is passed on to museum audiences.
Kimono Wednesdays are scheduled to take place every Wednesday evening through July in the Impressionist galleries during the museum’s free admission hours. Public protests are scheduled to coincide for the duration of the program.
UPDATE 7/7/2015 4:27PM: The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has reached out to us with the following statement regarding their in-gallery programming, and have posted it on their website:
The MFA’s mission is to engage people with direct encounters with works of art, and to be an inclusive and welcoming place for all. When the MFA’s painting, La Japonaise by Claude Monet, travelled throughout Japan for an exhibition, historically accurate reproduction kimonos were made for visitors to try on. When the painting returned to Boston and a similar program was introduced at the MFA, we heard concerns from some members of our community, and as a result we’ve decided to change our programming. The kimonos will now be on display in the Impressionist gallery every Wednesday evening in July for visitors to touch and engage with, but not to try on. This allows the MFA to continue to achieve the program’s goal of offering an interactive experience with the kimonos—understanding their weight and size, and appreciating the embroidery, material, and narrative composition. We will also increase the number of Spotlight Talks presented by MFA educators, to take place every Wednesday evening in July in conjunction with the display of the kimonos. The talks provide context on French Impressionism, “japonisme,” and the historical background of the painting, as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse. We apologize for offending any visitors, and welcome everyone to participate in these programs on Wednesday evenings, when Museum admission is free. We look forward to continuing the Museum’s long-standing dialogue about the art, culture and influence of Japan.