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Cartier at the Hyokeikan highlights an unbreakable bond between Maison and Japan

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 9 min read
Cartier at the Hyokeikan highlights an unbreakable bond between Maison and Japan
Clever use of the museum's spaces — two floors, three rotundas, and even the staircases — creates a journey for visitors (Pictures: Cartier)
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The highlight and main message of the Cartier exhibition at the Hyokeikan is the significance of the word “knot”, deeply rooted in Japanese mythology through the concept of “Musubi” (or “Musuhi”). In this context, “musu” signifies “to produce”, and “hi” embodies “the mysterious work of a divine spirit”. “Musubi” symbolises the binding together that brings forth the power of the divine spirit. 

At the Hyokeikan, you will encounter two distinct narratives within its symmetrical wings: “Cartier and Japan, a Tribute to Art and Beauty” and “Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and Japanese artists, a never-ending conversation”. Enjoy the exploration of these parallel paths that showcase the enduring dialogue between beauty, art and cultural exchange.

Pierre Rainero, image, style and heritage director at Cartier, shares: “It is about a common story between us [Cartier] and a country that we have been present for so many decades. But the links we share with Japan go much earlier than that, and our presence in Japan is part of our culture.” The bond between Cartier and Japan has been long-standing and strong, as reflected in events like Cartier’s gala dinner at Happouen Hakuhoukan, where past and present Cartier Japan staff gathered to celebrate their shared journey.

The connection between Cartier and Japan dates back to 1817 when Louis Cartier, despite never visiting Japan himself, had a deep respect for Japanese art. This admiration is reflected in his extensive collection of Japanese artefacts and literature, which inspired his designers and influenced Cartier’s aesthetic evolution.

Louis Cartier’s remote connection to Japanese art significantly shaped Cartier’s distinctive style and thematic choices. The exhibition “Musubi — Half-Century of Cartier in Japan and Beyond” was a collaborative effort involving various individuals and entities, including the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain and Studio Adrien Gardère.

See also: Pretty in porcelain: LOY Gallery launches Wang Xiaolin’s first solo exhibition

The exhibition’s development process highlighted the parallels between Cartier and the foundation’s perspectives regarding Japan, emphasising curiosity, exchange, and bridging differences. This infusion of Japanese art and culture left a mark on Cartier’s designs, influencing the Maison’s distinctive style and thematic choices. 

Louis Cartier’s influential yet remote connection to Japanese art significantly shaped Cartier’s aesthetic evolution. Based on this information, we presented to Rainero the question regarding the significance of curating pieces from the Cartier collection and private collection. His response highlighted the collaboration with the museum, the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, and Hélène Kelmachter. 

Rainero says: “It was fascinating to observe that perspective. I often mention that each exhibition presents an opportunity to further our knowledge. While we may have our internal vision, engaging with dedicated individuals such as Hélène to specific tasks unveils new insights, symbolisms within certain animals, patterns and craftsmanship.” 

See also: Exploring the symbolic knot

Initially, Rainero was curious about the number of pieces they could select. However, with a final tally of 120 pieces, he realised that each piece effectively illustrated a unique narrative with a connection. He mentions that such experiences are always enriching as they offer an external viewpoint, as seen in the case of Kelmachter, who predominantly delves into contemporary art. Having a fresh perspective on the creations adds another layer of intrigue and depth.

Armed with an Art History degree from Sorbonne University in Paris, Kelmachter pursued a diverse career path. She worked as an art critic, freelance curator, and conducted lectures in art history at universities and various art schools. Her journey led her to the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain in 1994, initially in the edition department and later as an exhibitions curator. As of October 2023, Hélène Kelmachter is based in Tokyo as the senior cultural advisor at Cartier Japan.

“Musubi — Half-Century of Cartier in Japan and Beyond” was about a year and a half in the making, and with a project of that scale, it takes a few people to put it together. Aside from Kelmachter, there are the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain and Studio Adrien Gardère, specialising in a variety of projects ranging from permanent museum designs, temporary exhibitions, cultural programming, to product design.

On this exhibition, Rainero, who has been with Cartier since 1984, says: “I had a perception right from the idea’s initiation and throughout the development process. Naturally, I was privy to certain decisions made under the purview of the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain, too. What struck me were the parallels between the Cartier and foundation perspectives regarding Japan.”

To him, there is a shared emphasis on curiosity, exchange, and the notion of bridging differences. He never realised it until he discovered the exhibition after it was finished. “I believe we owe a lot, not only to Hélène but also to Studio Adrien Gardère, who had a very astute vision of their work in this specific context.”

He adds: “There is a kind of lightness, but in a positive manner, in the way everything is presented within the museum. We are situated within a national museum with its own prestige and history, and the exhibition doesn’t overshadow the museum or its contents.”

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Rainero notes a sense of synergy and respect towards the museum, particularly during his initial visit. He expresses tremendous respect for the layout and the utilisation of two floors, three rotundas, and even the staircases. This set-up creates a journey for visitors, with a fluid transition from one part of the museum to another.

The experience

Musubi — Half-Century of Cartier in Japan and Beyond will be held from now to July 28, and promises to be an immersive experience, considering these facts: 

  • 120 pieces from Cartier Collection and private loans;
  • More than 50 pieces from Cartier Archives;
  • 28 artists co-operated (16 for Fondation Cartier, five for Masion Cartier, seven for both);
  • More than 150 art works from contemporary artists, including 50 paintings commissioned by Cartier for the celebration of 50 years in Japan; and
  • Two commissioned wall-paintings.

Guests will have the opportunity to marvel at the beauty coming from Maison Cartier creations — whether sourced from the Cartier Collection, the Maison’s historical archive, or specially lent for this event.

The Japanese exhibitions dedicated to Cartier since 1988 showcase a selection of the most prestigious pieces from the Cartier Collection. As the journey nears its conclusion, the final room serves as a reflection on 50 years of interaction between Cartier and a transforming Japan. This narrative emphasises how Cartier has captured the essence of each era while upholding its principles of fostering a deep appreciation for Japan’s dynamic creativity in fields such as architecture, design and contemporary art.

With each viewing, one can almost feel Cartier’s deep admiration for Japanese art. A clock on a stand echoes the elegance of a Japanese hand mirror, a mesmerising mystery clock pays homage to the architecture of a Shinto temple, an inro gives life to a luxurious vanity case, and a dragonfly takes flight from an old print to grace a brooch with diamond-adorned wings.

This reimagined vision of Japan has created an iconographic language that continues to influence Cartier’s designs to this day. Symbols like dragons, chimaeras, phoenixes and tigers — elements steeped in the traditions of both China and Japan — have transcended time, becoming integral components of the enduring Cartier aesthetic.

The influence of Japanese culture is reflected in the selection of materials and the application of artisanal techniques, particularly the prominent use of lacquer in Cartier’s creations during the early 20th century. Additionally, the incorporation of wickerwork provides a versatile canvas for various motifs and an expanded abstract vocabulary.

It was the Katagami motifs that inspired Cartier’s designers. From the outset of the 20th century to the contemporary era, the wave and scale patterns have adorned pieces like brooches, combs, and more recently, a wristwatch crafted today.

Cartier’s ability to blend contemporary relevance with timeless elegance has been evident in its enduring presence in Japan for over five decades. Acting as a visionary, the Maison has adeptly navigated the significant challenges of each era.

In 1974, collaborating with leading decorators and antique specialists of the era, the Maison’s identity took shape within an enchanting “mystery garden”, where bronze and polychromatic wooden sculptures showcased the jewellery, offering a genuine aesthetic immersion and a captivating journey into creativity.

These elements have left a lasting imprint on Cartier’s legacy in Japan, emphasising freedom and ingenuity. From collaborations with artists like Katsuhiko Hibino in 1997 to Shingo Katori in 2017, Cartier has continued to innovate and blend classic elegance with vibrant bursts of colour.

Shifting attention to the wing of the Hyokeikan, we encounter “Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporain And Japanese Artists: A Never-Ending Conversation”. Here, the spotlight is placed on artistic collaborations fostered by the Fondation Cartier, championing contemporary art and fostering continual exchanges with Japanese artists.

Maison Cartier’s relationship with Japan acknowledges the intimate rapport between the Fondation Cartier and Japanese artists. Throughout the years, the Fondation has introduced Japanese artists to European audiences, granting them creative liberty to innovate and venture into uncharted territories.

Through exhibitions, publications, commissions and acquisitions, the Fondation Cartier has cultivated a vibrant community of Japanese artists, engaging in an ongoing dialogue with them. This dialogue is vividly portrayed through portraits of Japanese artists painted by Tadanori Yokoo, capturing the artistic community collaboratively shaped by the Fondation Cartier.

In honour of Cartier’s 50th anniversary in Japan, Tadanori Yokoo embarked on a special project, creating a series of paintings across Japan. This initiative mirrors Sho Shibuya’s “the Fifty Sky Views of Japan”, symbolising enduring connections and a history perpetually in flux and renewal. 

Half-Century of Cartier in Japan and Beyond: An Everlasting Dialogue of Beauty and Art 
Wednesday, June 12, to Sunday, July 28, 2024
Venue: Hyokeikan, Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 110-8712, Japan

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