Author Journal / History / Journal / Visual Culture

Lilian May Miller: Painting East and West

Katrina Gulliver.

Lilian May MillerThe following article is an edited extract from Katrina Gulliver’s new book, Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars.

Lilian May Miller was born in Japan in 1895, the daughter of an American diplomat. She grew up in Japan until her family moved to Washington while she was in her teens. She attended Vassar, and after graduating returned to live in Asia, dividing her time between Tokyo and her father’s new posting in Korea. As a young woman, she found success as an artist, creating woodcut prints in Japanese style. After the outbreak of World War II, Miller lived in Hawaii until her death from cancer in 1943.

Miller was an artist who gained some fame in her lifetime, as newspaper coverage of her exhibitions demonstrates. However, a number of factors, including her untimely death, and her decision to destroy a large number of her works after the attack on Pearl Harbour (which led her to feel betrayed by Japan), mean that she is not a well-known figure now. Miller worked predominantly as a woodblock print artist, but also published poetry. She did not publish tracts promoting women’s rights, but her own life represents a fascinating intersection between east and west, and tradition and modernity. How she chose to negotiate these issues makes her a useful and unique figure for study.

Cultural Borrowing

Enrolled in the juku or private teaching atelier of Kano Tomonobu at the age of 9, Lilian Miller showed early talent. [1] Given that she was pushed into such training at an early age – the atelier took adult students – it could be questioned how much art was a career ‘choice’ for Miller. Also, it is interesting that whereas other female artists with whom she could most closely be compared are sometimes presented as ‘rebels’ – particularly those who travelled unaccompanied to Asia – Miller was in fact doing what her father wanted. The Orientalist attitudes implied in Miller’s public posture merit interrogation, as David Bate notes:

Historically the fundamental relation of the Occident to the East was one of occupation. In imitating the East, the European colonises and disrupts the authenticity of indigenous clothing; but by incorporating the Orient into his or her self-image, the European also acknowledges that the East has entered into the West, disturbing those polarised references on which the fixed image of the Occident/Orient depends: civilised/uncivilised, clean/dirty etc. [2]

However, the extent to which Miller colonised Japanese culture and the ways she was colonised by it seem to create the central tension of her identity.

There was a market in Europe and America for the Oriental image. Edmond de Goncourt’s books on Outamaro [Utamaro] (Paris: Bibliotheque-Charpentier, 1891) and Hokousaï (Paris: Flammarion, 1896), helped to introduce an appreciation of Japanese art to European audiences. He and his brother Jules were among the first to identify Japonisme as a cultural movement, calling attention to a phenomenon they had helped to create.

Traditional woodblock prints – ukiyo-e [pictures of the floating world] – were not expensive works of art, were readily available, and most popular from the early-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. As an example of mass culture they tended to represent traditional themes and ideas. Their common availability led Japanese people not to think of them as great works of value, and to be surprised when they were so warmly received in the west. [3] Of course, great woodblock artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige became famous and their works are greatly prized.

Helen Hyde was the first western woman to produce ‘shin-hanga’ or ‘new prints’ in 1901 in Japan, followed by Bertha Lum and Elizabeth Keith. [4] Among such western artists who lived in Japan and worked on Oriental subjects, Miller was the only one born in Asia. Examining their lives offers a way of interrogating Said’s idea of Orientalism (which, by his own admission, was not intended to apply for the Far East, although later scholars have applied it to Japan), and Reina Lewis’s theories on gender and Orientalism. She has written on the conflicted ideas of women artists creating ‘Orientalist’ art (in the Near East, with the images of the harem and Oriental decadence) and the possibility that the artists’ gender subverts the power structure implied by Edward Said’s idea of Orientalism. [5] Brown has wondered whether ‘these artists’ unconventional social and sexual identities – neither Miller, Hyde nor Keith married, and Lum spent most of her career separated then divorced – further align them against the patriarchal values of Orientalism. [6]

Miller arrived in this art world at a time when Japanese artists had started to use this traditional form to represent modern scenes and ideas – even if they were operating ‘traditionally’, and representing the world outside their studio doors, this world now contained modern buildings, electricity and women in western dress. This revival, known as Sosaku Hanga (creative print) technique, was influenced by European ideas of ‘the print as an artistic method rather than merely a means of production’. [7]

Traditionally, woodblock print production involved craftsmen operating to an artist’s direction. After the artist did a watercolour sketch of the image, one person cut the different woodblocks – one for each colour, and a printer then printed the different colours in sequence to create the image. Miller challenged this order by doing it all herself. This in a sense can be taken as western disregard for Asian tradition, however her respect for Japanese styles suggests it was more indicative of her independence (and possibly financial pragmatism).

The paradox of her situation was that in Japan she was a foreigner trying to keep a traditional art alive, while in America she was trying to convey the ‘beautiful spirit of Asia’ in a land of industrialisation. In America, particularly when at gallery shows or for newspaper photographers, she adopted a ‘Japanese’ identity, wearing a kimono, but was of course an Anglo-American woman of social standing. [8] In this sense she served as part of a tableau of the Oriental, on display in galleries along with her pictures. Whether this was a purely commercial choice, done to attract interest and enhance sales, is unclear.

Joan Jensen has argued that ‘ethnic cross-dressing is a complicated process deserving careful historical investigation. In addition to status and dress reform, ethnic cross-dressing may indicate a conscious gesture of solidarity with a subaltern group or a questioning of one’s own ethnic identity’. [9] Further than dress, to adopt another culture as one’s own, or ‘go native’ must be considered as one of the implications of Miller’s clothing. Resident in Japan during the 1920s, she only visited America when she exhibited her work there, and her kimono served as a visual cue that she may indeed live completely in Japanese style at ‘home’. As Greg Dening has written, ‘Going native always began – always begins – with some deference to the realism of another cultural system’. [10]

An alternative comparison can be made however to Marie Antoinette – for instance – dressing as a shepherdess. Rather than associating her with shepherdesses (the subaltern group), this form of theatrical ironic reversal serves to underscore that she is not a shepherdess. However, the extent to which Miller was appropriating or colonising Japanese culture is inflected by the fact that she felt a close affinity for Japanese life. In Miller’s case the ways in which she may have chosen the clothing for personal taste or comfort must also be considered. Having grown up in Japan, to her a Japanese costume was not as ‘foreign’ as it would have seemed to some of her observers. However, as with Marie Antoinette, it is precisely the fact that Miller was not Japanese that enabled her to wear a kimono and be a non-threatening symbol to American audiences, the familiar/foreign.

Alys Eve Weinbaum who has analysed the advertisements for ethnic themed clothing (Turkish housecoats, Chinese dresses) in American fashion magazines of the 1920s notes that rather than a liberal sensibility, ‘In the United States, the modern consumer’s objective was neither to become Asian through the purchase of Asian things or an Asian aesthetic, nor to become “primitive” through the consumption of “primitive”, often African things. Rather, she sought to embrace a cosmopolitan aesthetic so as to distance herself from the racial “otherness” that she had the power to purchase’. [11]

Cultural borrowing as a badge of modernity (and modernism) has been identified by Richard Serrano and seen for instance in the works of Ezra Pound. [12] This is challenged by the various critiques of ‘voice appropriation’ – the adoption of modes of expression from a culture other than the artist’s own, or even simply the depiction of members of other cultures – as harmful to the members of the community from which the borrowing is done. [13]

However, Miller is different from other artists in this way, due to her unusual background. Whereas ‘for most other Orientalist artists, Asia was a personal discovery and thus often a rejection of the values of their parents and the society in which they were raised; for Miller, the project of making Asia into art grew from the interests of her father, Ransford Stevens Miller’. [14] In this sense her poetry is not the equivalent of the work of Ezra Pound ‘creating’ Chinese poetry in English. However, she was participating in the perpetuation of the image of an essentialised Orient in the collective mind of the west. Many of Miller’s prints were produced as greeting cards for expatriates in Asia. Multiple originals of woodblock printing offered good financial returns, and Brown has asserted that she only went into woodblock prints (from previously pen and ink and watercolour) for the financial returns.

In a brief photo-essay in the February 1931 issue of Asia, ‘Three Artists Who Transcend the Bounds of East and West’, Miller features first. The page shows – in black and white, Asia not carrying coloured illustrations at this stage – two of her woodblock prints and a photo of Miller at work in her studio. In this photo, she is wearing a kimono, and kneeling on the floor, either cleaning or inking a woodblock (it is unclear). She is looking down at what she is doing, rather than at the camera – this is deliberately an image of ‘the artist at work’ rather than a portrait, and conveys also the meekness and docility of idealised Asian womanhood. We are told, ‘Miss Miller was taught by her Japanese master to copy patiently and devotedly, not nature itself but the representations of nature that he set her in the traditional style. She must spend an entire year in studying the various aspects of the plum tree’. [15] This reverence for the repetition and solemnity (and possible spiritual aspect) of acquiring a Japanese art form implies both that Miller was indeed channelling an essential Japaneseness rather than expressing herself, and that the readers of Asia held similar respect for Japanese culture.

Woodblock prints are identified as ‘one of the most typical of Japanese arts’. [16] It was certainly the one that most clearly spoke ‘Japan’ to a western audience. The idea that these pictures are an egalitarian art form also allies them with American value of democracy. We are told that ‘these supreme effects were designed not for the cultured noble nor discriminating court official, but turned out by the hundred for the common people’. [17]

Miller explained her own career in the Vassar magazine in 1932: ‘having been born and brought up in Japan and, as a child, having been trained in the technique of oriental painting by Japanese masters, it seemed very natural to gravitate to the art of woodblock painting’.

Her attempt to negotiate her own career path demonstrates some of the freedom and challenges of the Modern Woman: ‘I feel, somehow, as though I were between two fires, as in Japan an artist demeans himself by doing the technical labour’. She emphasises her role as interpreter between Japan and America. ‘One must be a pioneer, a bridge, to span the gap from west to east’. [18] In Japan, Miller’s main outlet was producing greetings cards for expatriates: the possibility of purchasing an Asian image for western purpose – like a Christmas card featuring a ukiyo print and a seasonal message in English – shows cultural hybridity and Orientalist appropriation.

Rain Blossoms, Japan, 1928 [top image]. This image, of umbrellas as ‘blossoms’, is a beautiful example of Miller’s work. There are human figures but we do not see their faces, so they function as elements of the landscape. The plain shapes of their bodies have no colour or pattern of clothing, making them the backdrop for the umbrellas in their colourful designs. She presents an image of traditional Oriental motifs – bridge, willow trees – with no indications of modernity (the umbrellas are the most technologically advanced items). The gender of the figures is indeterminate. Miller presented Asia in a time warp. She used traditional ukiyo themes, often landscapes, rather than modern or city scenes. This could reflect personal taste, or the market forces. However, the success of Elizabeth Keith with figurative images and prints of more obviously current city scenes shows that there was a market for these also.

An example of Miller’s typical style is Moonlight on Fujiyama, 1928. She created a number of works on Mt Fuji – at sunset, dawn, etc. This most important of Japanese landmarks being depicted in Japanese style by an American is both an homage and a cultural appropriation. While Mt Fuji had cultural significance for the Japanese, for the westerner it simply signified ‘Japan’, and Miller was producing these images at a time when American art was impressed by Ansel Adams’ photos showing the magnificent mountains of America’s national parks, and rugged nature images were in fashion.

Dwarf Pine Tree

Dwarf Pine Tree

Moonlight on Fujiyama Japan

Moonlight on Fujiyama

The Dwarf Pine Tree, or bonsai, is also interesting. The shading and light on the bark suggest a natural light source as though the tree is in a forest, but the fact it is in a pot obviously shows it to be a domesticated plant. The absence of background removes it from any context. It could be in a forest, in a house, or anywhere. It floats as an Oriental motif ready to be transplanted anywhere. Asia is presented as a picturesque landscape for the projection of the viewer’s fantasies.

Female Independence

Kendall Brown has drawn on private correspondence between Miller and her parents and younger sister, Harriet, to illustrate more about her personal life. [19] In a lengthy epistle from October 1920, Miller describes her inability to ‘make’ herself fall in love with a man, work up a single palpitation or ‘even the ghost of one’. [20] Brown suggests that ‘The most private confessions also suggest that lesbianism, wittingly or not, may have influenced Miller’s decision as an adult to live and work in the Far East – where being outside the norm was part of every Westerner’s experience’. [21] In her public persona, the cues of this were (perhaps) her short haircut and being known to friends and family as ‘Jack’. However, bobbed hairstyles were popular in the 1920s, and Miller’s father had given her and her sister Harriet – ‘Hal’ – masculine nicknames in childhood. The extent to which she intended these attributes as coding her sexual preference is unclear.

Laura Doan has suggested that in the decade following World War I, the meaning of clothing was ‘a good deal more fluid than fixed’, particularly in marking gender identity. When analysing the coding of gender identity of this period, she argues, if we ‘impose our current assumptions about the requisite association of clothing and same-sex desire, we risk misreading female masculinities in the 1920s’. [22] As she explains:

from Renée Vivien to Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes, from Vita Sackville-West to Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein, a number of other women transgressively appropriated male costumes or oscillated between parodically female and male costumes as if to declare that as Woolf said, ‘we are what we wear and therefore, since we can wear anything, we can be anyone’. [23]

Miller can be seen to have been following this practice, wearing male clothing in her private life but ‘parodically’, or at least emphatically female costume in the form of the kimono in public.

Miller’s art focuses on traditional subjects and scenes from nature and Kendall Brown has argued that she replaced Asian ‘tradition’ for the western cultural norms she was flouting (being unmarried, calling herself ‘Jack’). For Brown’s speculation of lesbianism, he produces no conclusive evidence of Miller’s sexuality. Her own peripatetic lifestyle meant that her estate left very little in the way of personal papers. Brown has pointed out these contradictions in her identity that made her a stranger in America but always marked as a foreigner in Japan, and that she lived in hotels most of her adult life. Her dual identity also comes through in her use of the name ‘Jack’ to family and friends, but Lilian to the art-buying public. [24] He has further suggested, In terms of Miller’s negotiation of gender roles, in Japan where this craft was the province of men, Miller’s production of her own prints was an inherently transgressive act. Yet, in the West, where craft work was increasingly associated with bourgeois femininity, Miller’s carving and printing may well have been read as appropriately feminine behaviour. [25]

As she herself conceded, ‘Sometimes it is difficult to be a messenger between east and west. Sometimes one falls in the gulf between’. [26] Lilian Miller attempted to transgress, and indeed to transcend, her social position and identity in her performance both of Japaneseness and masculinity. To the extent that she placed herself in Japanese society, and adopted Japanese cultural practices, her behaviour also constituted a rebellion against the appropriate practices for a Japanese woman, and was therefore a trading on her white status to operate outside the cultural expectations of Japan. Likewise, in America, she traded on a performed exoticism to again step outside culturally coded behaviour for a white woman of her social status.

Alys Eve Weinbaum has claimed, in her assessment of a Vanity Fair photoessay from 1925 featuring masks, in which a white model poses with a Japanese mask, ‘the racial superiority of the model is equated with her ability to control the ‘Nipponese’ mask – to not only put on Japaneseness but also to take it off to expose her own white modernity’. [27] Lilian Miller offered the ‘Oriental’ without the mask, the pose of a Japanese woman, but with a white face. In this way she performed as the assimilated Japanese. Rather than black-face minstrelsy or other forms of racial masquerade, her cultural cross-dressing was a performance of whiteness. Her kimono and kneeling position, beautiful woodcut artworks, only emphasised her whiteness, in that the exoticism of the setting made her more white. Her gender performance in her private life adds another layer, in that she seems to have avoided the role of white American woman. She played it ironically ‘as’ Japanese, and when in western dress she subverted it with male costume.

Lilian May Miller is therefore an example of the performative aspects of the Modern Woman. Miller was an American woman born in Japan, who consciously adopted a Japanese identity. Like Pearl Buck, she felt more at home in Asia than America and she demonstrates her strong affinity for Japan in her choice of career and personal presentation in Japanese dress. She was able to claim inheritance of two distinct cultural traditions and demonstrate her fluency in slipping between them. In such ways she demonstrates modernity as transgressing cultural boundaries, and the independence that allowed her to pursue such a career as marking her as ‘modern’ (in different ways) both in Japan and the USA. ■

Katrina Gulliver is the author of Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars, editor of the journal Transnational Subjects, and is presenter of the urban history podcast, Cities in History and creator of the Twitterstorians. You can follow her on Twitter @katrinagulliver.


[1] Brown, Between Two Worlds, p.13.

[2] David Bate, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Photography and the Colonizing Vision’, Afterimage 20, no. 1 (1992), p.12.

[3] Rebecca Salter, Japanese Woodblock Printing (London: A & C Black, 2001).p.11

[4] Brown, Between Two Worlds, p.9.

[5] Reina, Lewis, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation (London: Routledge, 1996).

[6] Lewis, Gendering Orientalism, p.44.

[7] Salter, Japanese Woodblock Printing, p.12.

[8] Brown, Between Two Worlds, p.11.

[9] Joan M. Jensen, ‘Women on the Pacific Rim: Some Thoughts on Border Crossings’, Pacific Historical Review 67, no. 1 (1998), p.13.

[10] Greg Dening, ‘Europe “Discovers” the “Pacific’’’, in Implicit Understandings, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p.470,

[11] Alys Eve Weinbaum, ‘Racial Masquerade: Consumption and Contestation of American Modernity’ in A. E. Weinbaum, L. M. Thomas, P. Ramamurthy, U. G. Poiger, M. Y. Dong, & T. E. Barlow (eds.), Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, Globalization, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 128.

[12] Richard Serrano, Neither a Borrower: Forging Traditions in French, Chinese and Arabic Poetry (Oxford: Legenda, 2002).

[13] James O. Young, ‘Should White Men Play the Blues?’ Journal of Value Enquiry 28, no. 3 (1994), pp.415–424.

[14] Brown, Between Two Worlds, p.13.

[15] ‘Three Artists Who Transcend the Bounds of East and West’, Asia XXXI (1931).

[16] Lilian Miller, ‘An American Girl and the Japanese Print’, Vassar Quarterly, May 1932, p.120.

[17] Miller, ‘An American Girl and the Japanese Print’, p.120.

[18] Miller, ‘An American Girl and the Japanese Print’, p.123.

[19] Brown, ‘Lilian Miller: An American Artist in Japan’, p.81.

[20] Brown, ‘Lilian Miller: An American Artist in Japan’, p.93.

[21] Brown, ‘Lilian Miller: An American Artist in Japan’, p.82.

[22] Laura Doan, ‘Passing Fashions: Reading Female Masculinities in the 1920s’, Feminist Studies 24, no. 3 (1998), p.665.

[23] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, vol. 2: Sexchanges (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p.327.

[24] Brown, Between Two Worlds, p.12.

[25] Brown, Between Two Worlds, p.57.

[26] Miller, ‘An American Girl and the Japanese Print’, p.123.

[27] Alys Eve Weinbaum, ‘Racial Masquerade: Consumption and Contestation of American Modernity’, p. 124.


2 thoughts on “Lilian May Miller: Painting East and West

  1. Pingback: Bravery, and Historical Pursuits | the i.b.tauris blog

  2. Lilian May Miller is one of my ancestors (4th cousin I believe), I love reading about her and seeing other people’s interest in her and her work, thank you for such a well written post!

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