Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan by Grace Elizabeth Lavery

Reviewed by Emily Eastgate Brink

Grace Elizabeth Lavery,
Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.
240 pp.; 14 b&w illus.; notes; index.
$47.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780691183626

Grace E. Lavery’s recent book, Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan, signals a notable theoretical and methodological shift in the study of Victorian Japanism. Lavery’s project is part of a constellation of compelling new scholarship on Japanism produced over the past five years, including Christopher Reed’s Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities and Elizabeth Emery’s Reframing Japonisme: Women and the Asian Art Market in Nineteenth-Century France (1852–1914).‍[1] All three books reconsider the role gender and sexuality play in the formulation of late nineteenth-century Japanism, adding necessary nuance to a topic often plagued by essentialist concerns with the Western male ‘discovery’ of Japanese genius. Lavery looks to the trappings of Orientalism as both the focus and foil for her argument: the artists and authors she considers all conjure a vision of Japan that is civilized, though marginalized, both exquisite and eccentric, and, within the British context, also consistently queer. Building on Reed’s contention that sexual nonconformity can illuminate and inform an understanding of racial and cultural alterity, ‍[2] Lavery positions Japan as a signifier of broader notions of queerness within the Victorian context. In this expansive contemplation of otherness, Quaint, Exquisite looks to reorient the discourse on Japanism, to consider how overlooked objects, interstitial identities, and various forms of marginalia participated in the Victorian manufacture of Japan. Lavery is deliberate in her queering of the archive, which encompasses bonsais, paper, torture porn cinema, haikus, and swords, a wide range of Japanese signifiers that construct an extensive, though at times seemingly scattershot, understanding of Japan in the West.

While principally anchored in the world of Whistler and Wilde, Lavery’s study extends beyond the Victorian period to consider how nineteenth-century Japanism shapes not only post-structuralist debates but also popular cinema. Quaint, Exquisite frequently dances across genres and time periods, revealing, for instance, how Gilbert and Sullivan’s instrumentalization of Japan in The Mikado (1885) resonates with the treatment of Japanese beauty and violence in the films of Quentin Tarantino, or how Oscar Wilde’s fascination with the exoticism of Japan might prefigure Barthes’ Empire of Signs (1970). In this chronological and evidentiary sweep, Lavery examines Japan as a culture that Western aesthetes and theorists have been at pains to decode. In her own attempt to decipher Japan as a space, a signifier, and a fiction, Lavery relies on a complex methodological framework of disparate theories that she defines as the “Analytic of the Exquisite.”

Lavery builds her analytical approach around the Victorian notion of the exquisite, a term widely used in the nineteenth century to denote the poignant convergence of beauty and violence. Throughout Quaint, Exquisite, Japanese culture exemplifies this aesthetic imbrication. Celebrated as a militarized empire capable of producing universally beautiful objects, Japan challenged the categories of European superiority and foreign vulnerability latent in Victorian imperialism, categories that also later characterized the study of Orientalism pioneered by Said.‍[3] As an exception to Victorian codes of domination and civilization, Japan occupies a liminal space in the nineteenth-century British imagination. To understand Japan’s cultural distinction within the Victorian context, Lavery positions the exquisite within the framework of Kantian subjective universal judgments. The Kantian tension between the sublime and beautiful is implicit in the exquisite, but Lavery’s theoretical concern focuses on the complexity and applicability of Kant’s notion of aesthetic consensus. In Lavery’s analysis, Japan becomes a testing ground for philosophical universals in late nineteenth-century Britain, blurring the distinction between subject and object by complicating the social relation between aesthetic observer and the Other.

Lavery’s analysis goes on to refract Kant’s subjective universal through such thinkers as Arendt, Freud, Lacan, and Bourdieu, creating a comprehensive, albeit argumentatively complex, theoretical armature for her interpretation of Victorian Japanism. For Lavery, the appeal and meaning of Japan in Victorian Britain is as much about what it is, as what it isn’t: Japan is an empire, but it poses no threat to Britain; Japan is beautiful, but it is not fragile; Japan is foreign, but it is not unfamiliar; Japan is both modern and quaint. These inherent contradictions make Japan a distinct and adaptable culture for late nineteenth-century Victorians, as they struggled to both define and understand themselves. Though Kant’s aesthetic judgments are critical to Lavery’s formulation of her own “Analytic,” what is more convincing, and discursively compelling, is her exploration of Japanese aesthetics as a mechanism for the queering of British culture.

According to Lavery, the Japan constructed by Victorian Japanism is an idea that confounds neat binaries and upends social and political hegemonies.‍[4] Japan is not so much a place, as an aesthetic device used to liberate and celebrate the queerer aspects of British culture. This queerness manifests in homosocial spaces, in the aesthetic projects of infamously gay men, such as Oscar Wilde, and in the subversion of gender norms. This queerness is also present in what Lavery identifies as the quaint character of Victorian Japanism: namely, an interest in objects and aesthetic projects that subvert or remain marginal to major historical narratives. Lavery deploys a vast array of queer theories to support her claims, including the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Sara Ahmed, among others, and often her arguments about Japan’s Victorian queerness are well evidenced and convincing. Despite this strength, however, keeping track of all the things Japan is, and isn’t, in Lavery’s analysis of late Victorian Japanism frequently requires an unwieldy amount of terminological and methodological juggling. Lavery acknowledges this complexity and helpfully provides a list of her key terms at the end of her introductory chapter, but the reader is often left wondering which version of her argument Lavery is choosing to apply throughout her extensive analysis. This frustration might reveal the inherent risk in trying to decode Japan as a shifting signifier, meaning that each chapter feels quite distinct in its use of evidence and its argumentative thrust.

Having established her methodological and historiographical approach in the introduction, Lavery begins her analysis of Victorian Japanism through a discussion of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, The Mikado. The Japan of The Mikado is a caricature and construction of an imagined place; the opera’s plot about desire and punishment unfolds within a world that would have been read as, but which hardly resembled, Japan. This insistence on the specificity of the opera’s Japanese setting and the simultaneous resistance to the cultural accuracy of its mise-en-scène characterizes what Lavery identifies as the The Mikado’s queer realism. In this analysis of Japan’s Victorian queerness, the imagined world of Japan is constructed and performed in relation to narratives about illicit desire and in a setting that strategically coded Japan as a believable, yet alternate world. Lavery concludes her first chapter by analyzing a variety of other peripheral British narratives that attempt to approximate an ‘accurate’ image of Japan. By examining how Japan was instrumentalized to respond to an increasingly visible Victorian queerness, Lavery establishes a baseline for British Japanism that is less about Japan and more about the appeal of imagining an alternate empire.

Shifting her focus from the elaborate staging of opera to the quiet contemplation of the page, Lavery’s second chapter explores how the aesthetic projects of two renowned Victorian Japanists, Oscar Wilde and J.A.M. Whistler, conjured Japan from the margins. This is one of the most cohesive and well-written chapters of the entire book, particularly because it reveals how Japan and queerness intersect at both a textual and material level in the work of these two infamous aesthetes. In this chapter, Lavery’s queering of the archive involves a consideration of material and marginalia often neglected in discussions of Whistler or Wilde. While the analysis of Whistler’s paintings, principally Symphony in White, No. 2 (1864) and Caprice in Purple and Gold (1864), feels cursory and adds little to the broader discourse on Whistler studies, Lavery’s consideration of negative space in Whistler’s written work is compelling. Across a variety of textual examples, Lavery examines how the print layout of Whistler and the book designs of Wilde help instantiate Japanese aesthetic values on the page. Lavery’s analysis of text-image relationships and the meaning she finds in Japanist signatures, bookplates, and annotations offer exciting new insights into these two central figures of the later Victorian era.

Building on the text-image relationship explored in chapter 2, the middle chapter of Quaint, Exquisite analyzes how the haiku is transmuted in the post-Victorian context through the English poetry of Yone Noguchi. Looking beyond, and to the periphery, of Ezra Pound’s influential haiku “In the Station of the Metro” (1913), Lavery examines how Noguchi navigates the syllabic constraints of haiku poetry in English as a second language. The British Pre-Raphaelites become a key source of inspiration for Noguchi, and Lavery explores how the poet draws on the subjects and style of Rossetti. Lavery submits these haikus to a close read and explores, in particular, how kireji, or cutting words, are used to create tension and balance within Noguchi’s poetry. Shifting away from the Victorian period, the latter half of the chapter analyzes the poetry of the African American writer Richard Wright. This pivot provides a more expansive understanding of the haiku and its adaptations outside of Japan, while also attempting to show how the poetic form was both a source of modernist inspiration and a mainstay of Western traditionalism. Lavery interrogates the Western interest in the haiku from a variety of different angles in this chapter, including a brief interlude, which returns to Kantian aesthetics and a contemplation of the beautiful and sublime. Primarily concerned with problematizing Japan’s relationship to modern sublimity, this chapter departs from the previous emphasis on queer aesthetics in Victorian Japanism. In its focus and form, this middle chapter bisects Lavery’s larger narrative about nineteenth-century Japanism, albeit with a finesse that is notably less effective than the haiku’s kireji.

Much like the analysis of Noguchi’s Pre-Raphaelite poetry, the fourth chapter of Quaint, Exquisite also considers how Japanese intellectuals translated and interpreted British aesthetics, by looking to John Ruskin’s influence and interpretation in Taishō Japan. Lavery focuses on the writing of Mikimoto Ryūzō, the privileged son of a Meiji businessman, who assiduously collects, translates, and interprets Ruskin during a key period of Japanese imperial expansion. Lavery reveals how Ruskin’s radical politics take hold in the social climate of 1920s Japan and traces how Mikimoto adapts the anti-capitalist sentiment of both Ruskin and Marx. This chapter brings to light the often-overlooked influence of Mikimoto on Ruskin scholarship in Japan, putting the notion of queering the archive into practice. However, the other argumentative threads of earlier chapters feel lost: it is unclear where the quaint, the exquisite, and Kant fit within this focused interpretation. In its emphasis on bringing Mikimoto from the periphery to the center, this chapter makes no mention of other parallel, and arguably more influential, Ruskin scholarship from this period, notably the celebration of Ruskin among members of the Shirakaba (白樺) circle, including Sōetsu Yanagai, or Bernard Leach’s engagement with Ruskin through Mingei.‍[5] This oversight constructs an incomplete picture of Ruskin’s politicized influence in Taishō Japan and truncates the potential meaning of this compelling cross-pollination.

The fifth chapter of Quaint, Exquisite brings the contemplation of Japanism into the present day through an analysis of the katana sword in both nineteenth-century novellas and contemporary cinema. Examining Madame Chrysanthème stories and the blockbusters of Tarantino, Lavery traces the katana as both a Japanist fetish and narrative device. Lavery approaches the katana in psychoanalytic terms, by considering how the sword serves as both a phallic extension and source of castration. This liminal and sexualized function of the sword allows it to operate as a recurring Japanist trope, an object that cuts, penetrates, punctures, and wounds characters with a beautiful violence that Lavery locates in the exquisite. Much as she had in her analysis of the haiku, Lavery considers the importance of the cut in the stories she dissects in this final chapter, exploring the connection of the sword to narrative climax in the work of Pierre Loti, Winnifred Eaton, Takashi Miike, and Quentin Tarantino. Concluding with an analysis of Miike’s body-horror film, Audition (1999), and the aggressively masculine storylines of Tarantino, Lavery demonstrates how Japan’s queerness is compounded in popular movies through the katana as a surrogate, gender-fluid sex organ. Concerned primarily with French, Canadian, Japanese, and American representations of the katana, this chapter introduces another variable to Lavery’s larger claims about Victorian Japanism; by expanding the book’s initial geography in this final chapter, Lavery broadens the discursive possibilities of her analysis, while also threatening to dilute the focus of her argument.

Encompassing literature, opera, painting, and film, Quaint, Exquisite reconsiders the discourse on Japanism from a wide range of theoretical and evidentiary angles. For art historians, Lavery’s analysis of Japanese books, paper types, and paper textures in chapter 2, “All Margin,” will prove most fruitful, as this section offers a rich understanding of the material meaning behind Whistler and Wilde’s incorporation of Japanese book arts in their own print oeuvres. Lavery’s acknowledgment of the role Japanese books played in Victorian Japanism is a welcomed reminder that prints were often bound and encountered as volumes, an augmentation of the standard discourse on Japanism, which has often been overly preoccupied with identifying the influence of singular Hokusai or Hiroshige prints on the work of Western artists.‍[6] This second chapter stands apart in its close consideration of the haptic detail of paper; the majority of Lavery’s book tends to deny the specificity of Japanese objects, often robbing them of their historical and material texture. This tendency runs the risk of perpetuating the same stereotypes that Lavery herself is critiquing, glossing Japanese culture through a generic reading of blue and white porcelain or folding screens. In the end, however, this book is primarily focused on repositioning how scholars approach Japanism through a strategic revision of the archive. Though its theoretical framework is complex and, at times, unwieldy, Quaint, Exquisite marks an important shift in the queering and diversification of Japanism scholarship.


[1] Christopher Reed, Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017) and Elizabeth Emery, Reframing Japonisme: Women and the Asian Art Market in Nineteenth-Century France (1853–1914) (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).

[2] Reed, Bachelor Japanists, 6.

[3] The relationship between Japan and the West has often posed challenges to Said’s definition of Orientalism, as it postulates a particular power dynamic related to imperialist agendas. For a more nuanced interpretation of Orientalism in the context of Japan, Yuko Kikichi’s discussion of Oriental Orientalism and Japanese modernity is still an essential read. See Yuko Kikuchi, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism (London: Routledge, 2004).

[4] Lavery’s text relies on a range of theoretical approaches, but curiously sidesteps a discussion or acknowledgment of Benedict Anderson’s theory of conjured, imagined communities. As a foundational text for the concept of culture and nations as manufactured ideas, Imagined Communities was a surprising omission. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

[5] Brian Moeran was among the first to examine this connection between Ruskin and Mingei. See Brian Moeran, “Bernard Leach and the Japanese Folk Craft Movement: The Formative Years,” Journal of Design History 2, no. 2/3 (1989): 141. Yuko Kikuchi also traces Ruskin discourse in Japan back to 1888 and the publication of Kokumin no Tomo. For Kikuchi’s extensive list of scholars working on Ruskin in the Meiji and Taishō periods, see Yuko Kikuchi, “The Myth of Yanagi’s Originality: The Formation of ‘Mingei’ Theory and Its Social and Historical Context,” Journal of Design History 7, no. 4 (1994): 254–55.

[6] My analysis of Hokusai’s Manga in France also seeks to reassess the material influence and distinction of bound Japanese volumes in the West. See Emily Eastgate Brink, “Civilisation and the encyclopaedic impulse: Hokusai, Diderot, and the Japanese album as encyclopédie,” Civilisation and nineteenth-century art: A European concept in global context, ed. David O’Brien (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 130–49.