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Japan's past -- as seen through the eyes of the West

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Western visitors made Japan a frequent destination. Many of them, as it happened, were from Boston, which largely accounts for the Museum of Fine Arts' now having one of the foremost collections of Japanese art outside of Japan.

What drew these foreigners was the chance to see a society so alien to their own. Thus the images they wanted to take back with them were of traditional Japan: temples and Buddhas, kimonos and rickshaws. Yet the very fact of their visiting signified Japan's turning to the West and conscious embrace of many Western traditions. It was only recently that foreigners had been allowed to enter the country. For 250 years, Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world.

This implicit contradiction, the lure of indigenous tradition for those helping to supplant it, defines "Art and Artifice: Meiji-Era Travel Photography," which runs at the MFA through Jan. 3. The show comprises 43 images drawn from some 1,300 Japanese photographs from 1868-1912 recently donated to the museum by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf.

Even if Japan hadn't been modernizing during this period, the Meiji Restoration, there would still be an implicit contradiction at work. It was up-to-the-minute Western technology that was recording traditional Japanese culture. There's a nice irony in this, because at roughly the same time the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints in Paris was helping revolutionize Western visual arts.

Much of the impact of Japanese prints came from their use of perspective, but there was also how they deployed color. The often-bold use of color in Japanese prints is very different from the generally restrained treatment on display in "Art and Artifice." Almost two-thirds of the photographs are hand-tinted, which lends an ambiguous quality, hovering between documentary and expression. Not that the use of color is unrealistic (the photographs were meant as mementos, after all). But the delicately ravishing pinkness of the cherry blossoms in "View of Ueno Park, Tokyo," from about 1890, or in "View of Cherry Blossoms at Mukojima on the Sumida River, Tokyo," from about 1895, is so transfixing as to make actuality seem beside the point.

The small scale of the show lends it a pleasing intimacy that allows for close study. Otherwise, one might miss the sparrow-sized man perched on the statue's wrist in "View of the Great Buddha at Hase, Kamakura," from about 1890. Or in "View of Monumental Bell at Hoko-ji, Kyoto," from around 1875, why is there someone spread-eagled against the bell? As for "Edo Castle, Tokyo," it's only close inspection that reveals what would seem to be a photograph taken on color film -- in 1895? -- is, in fact, a hand-tinted albumen print.

If it's Japan's past informing its present that's most often visible in "Art and Artifice" -- consider "Woman in Jinrikisha," say, or "Lady in Palanquin with Maid and Carriers," both from about 1875 -- there are also intimations of its future. The building in "View of Western-Style House on the Bluff, Yokohama," from about 1890, wouldn't look amiss on Nantucket. And the tall-masted ships in "View of the Harbor, Yokohama," from about 1895, could be in a Luminist painting. Of course, the plumes of smoke couldn't. Instead, they might be seen to betoken a different aspect of the future. A decade later the Japanese would destroy the Russian fleet, at Tsushima, asserting the nation's arrival on the world stage.

Perhaps the most telling image is "View of the Nikko Road at Imaichi," from 1890. Certainly, it's among the most striking. A man in a coolie hat stands at dead center, pulling a cart. He looks tiny compared to the magnificent cryptomeria trees that line the unpaved road. Through a trick of perspective, the trees' greenery seems to be bowing, as if in farewell, as he trudges off -- into the past, into the distance, into eternity?

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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