People recently got very angry about the “kimono incident” at Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), which was canceled after being called “racist” by protesters.

The event allowed visitors to try on a kimono, a replica of one in a painting by Claude Monet.

Channel your inner Camille #Monet and try on a replica of the kimono she’s wearing in “La Japonaise.” Every Wednesday night June 24-July 29, one of our College Ambassadors will be on hand to assist in transforming you into Monet’s muse. Share your photos using #mfaBoston!

Monet’s painting, La Japonaise, featured his wife Camille (non-Japanese) in a red kimono, posing with a fan.

The event was supposed to run every Wednesday (when the museum is free) until July 29th.

claude monet la japonaise racist orientalism protest boston museum of fine arts kimono
Image via La Times

However, the event was interrupted by protesters with signs saying:

“It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!”

People of all races and backgrounds have called the event “cultural appropriation” and “racist”, including some (non-Japanese) residents in Japan, though many reacted with dismay.

The original painting is Orientalism, though with a certain caveat. It is part of Japonisme (or Japonism), the wave of Japan-influenced arts that swept like a fetish over Europe and involved some of the most famous artists during the second half of the nineteenth century, including the Impressionists and painters like Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh and Gustav Klimt.

Monet exhibited this work at the second group show of the Impressionist painters in 1876, where it attracted much attention. Large-scale figure paintings had traditionally been considered the most significant challenge for an artist. Using this format, Monet created a virtuoso display of brilliant color that is also a witty comment on the current Paris fad for all things Japanese. The woman shown wrapped in a splendid kimono and surrounded by fans is Monet’s wife, Camille, wearing a blond wig to emphasize her Western identity.

The painting is knowingly “orientalist”, from the ironic title to the fact that Monet had his wife wear a blond wig to further emphasize her European-ness.

claude monet la japonaise racist orientalism protest boston museum of fine arts kimono

The initial in-gallery protests for the first two Wednesday-night events were small, just a handful of demonstrators. But then a Facebook page called “Stand Against Yellow-Face @ the MFA” made the issue viral.

“Wow, MFA. This is super racist; I expected more from you.”

“You’re furthering the exotification of Asian individuals by reducing them down to a costume.”

“This is honestly one of the most vilely racist things I’ve ever seen. White folks wanting to play dress up and feel Japanese? Please, don’t. Japan isn’t your mystical fantasy playground for you to go galavanting around in a dead Frenchman’s orientalist vision of Japan.”

“There’s a difference between appreciation and appropriation, MFA. As a former Boston resident and patron of the museum I’m embarrassed for you. yes… let’s all appreciate Camille Monet and the orientalism of the past by bringing it into the present and framing it to be ‘okay’.”

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There were naysayers aplenty, though.

One person, whose blog title (Japanese-American in Boston) surely indicates she is “qualified” to respond, posted a thorough and balanced analysis.

The museum has responded by changing the event. The kimono will remain on display.

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.

As the museum responds notes, the same scheme was tried successfully in Japan during the painting’s tour, which was restored in 2013. If the painting and the event is orientalist, it would be reverse orientalism for Japanese people to put on the kimono from the painting — appropriating the appropriation.

Is this a storm in a teacup, political correctness gone crazy, or a genuine case of “yellow-face”?

And is the suggestion that it’s fine for Japanese people to wear western clothes but not okay for westerners to wear a kimono in public?

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6 Comments

  • dreamshesees July 11, 2015

    Wow, the sarcastic quotes were bad, but then pretending cultural appropriation (Westerners wearing kimonos) with cultural imperialism (Western culture being imposed on Japan and other countries, making Western clothing the cultural norm) are remotely comparable? Nope nope nope. Removing this site from my feed, bye.

  • Japan Trends
    Japan Trends July 12, 2015

    @dreamshesees

    If you thought we were “pretending cultural appropriation (Westerners wearing kimonos) with cultural imperialism (Western culture being imposed on Japan and other countries, making Western clothing the cultural norm)” were “comparable”, perhaps you misread the article? It wasn’t us who made those assertions!

  • Aizen July 13, 2015

    OK, this is super hilarious. I’m Japanese, and I think no one born and raised in Japan is actually mad about any of this. Like who are these protesters, even? Just because I look a certain way doesn’t give me the right to get all offended on the behalf of all similar-looking people. There are LOTS OF OTHER STUFF Japanese can be legitimately mad about, like being made to suffer bad trade deals, general racism, being made to pay up a lot at international talks, but sheesh, this kimono rage sounds fake. There would be legitimate anger if there was wrong information being tossed around about geishas or kabuki, because God forbid, but not this.

  • Japan Trends
    Japan Trends July 13, 2015

    @Aizen

    There are LOTS OF OTHER STUFF Japanese can be legitimately mad about, like being made to suffer bad trade deals, general racism, being made to pay up a lot at international talks, but sheesh, this kimono rage sounds fake.

    Well said. Yes, we also doubt people born and raised in Japan are at all angered by this (if you are, though, please feel free to join in the debate).

  • MB July 16, 2015

    lol@ “This is honestly one of the most vilely racist things I’ve ever seen.”

    Wow, really? You must not get out much then…

  • AmericanGeisha July 20, 2015

    WOoooowww. This is SUPER stupid. I mean are you f”#$%joking me?? Cultural appropriation gone mad doesn’t even begin to cover it. I would have felt really stupid if i was protesting this. I think there would have been legitimate cause for concern if the people trying on the kimono also had their faces painted yellow with “geisha” makeup or something and if the blurb from the museum said something like “channel your inner Jap…” or “channel your inner oriental…”
    They set this up for the audience to engage with Monets (quite misguided but appropriate for the times) painting. “channel your inner Camille…”..NOT WITH JAPANESE OR ANY ASIAN PEOPLES OR CULTURE!!!WTF does this have to do with cultural appropriation??? Nothing is being appropriated here!! When I stop seeing asians running around on halloween dressed as “indians” then maybe they can talk to me about some “cultural appropriation” until then, PFFFFT get outta here!!

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