Japanese Art and Impressions of Women: Ukiyo-e and Impressionism

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Impressions of Women – Ukiyo-e and Impressionism

 By toshidama
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It’s handy to think of national (or even nationalistic) characteristics in art; I’m thinking of books such as Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art from 1955 for example. The reality is that people talk to each other; artists, architects, producers and makers have a constant dialogue; dialogue informs the arts and enlivens the cultural scene. Nowhere is this more evident than in Europe and America in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What became the modern world – modernism, cubism, the American Scene, had its roots in the furious communication of ideas that spanned continents and cultures at that time. Of these exchanges, the Japanese ‘conversation’ – for want of a better word is perhaps one of the most important; the explosion of Japanese culture on the post 1860 cultural scene is even now yet to be fully acknowledged.

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Mid-century Paris is generally considered to be the creative centre of the nineteenth century culturalmilieu. Out of Paris emerged the artists Manet, Degas, Van Gogh and Cezanne who would become known as the Impressionists and the Post-impressionists and writers such as Zola, Huysmans and Baudelaire who would inspire Realists and Symbolists in literature and poetry. It is actually very hard to imagine the direction that any of the above names would have taken had they not been exposed to the newly exported culture of Edo Japan. Equally in London, Whistler’s debt to ukiyo-e is self evident as is the work of early American realists such as Bertha Lum, Helen Hyde and Frank Fletcher.
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It is in portrayals of women and landscape that we see the primary Japanese influence on European artists. Maybe the first reliable account of Japanese art in Paris is from the printer Auguste Delatre who owned a copy of the Hokusai Manga in 1856. He showed it the same year to the artist Felix Braquemond who in turn purchased a copy which he then showed to the artists of his circle: Manet, Degas and Whistler. Shortly afterwards these artists formed a club – Societe du Jing-lar – dedicated to the study of Japanese art and culture.
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Almost from this point we can see a huge shift in subject matter, composition, touch and design in the works of the decade’s leading painters. An obvious (and literal) example is Manet’s 1867 portrait of Emile Zola (below right). In this painting we see the writer’s study decorated with ukiyo-e, books and screens, and there are plenty of examples in French avante-garde art of the period where the new craze for Japonisme is evident in objects of Edo culture. The influence of Japanese art had a more profound effect than just the decoration of backgrounds or the outré wearing of kimonos however. The real changes were brought about by the ways of seeing and the craft of picture making.
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European painting in the mid-century was freighted with a weary academicism: tired and cliched subject matter drawn from the mythology of Greece and Rome, stilted techniques that relied on trusted methods of underpainting and glazing that guaranteed a uniform surface; or else flattering portraiture that situated art at the service of a prosperous bourgeoisie. The revolution in painting that began in earnest with the exhibition of Manet’s Olympia in 1863 quickly became a movement that was principally concerned with the modern and the real. Hence the storm over Manet’s plain portrait of a well known prostitute in a dishevelled salon. Realism can be achieved by two approaches – subject matter and technique – hence the modernists’ use of the everyday, and their search to find a method of painting and drawing that conveyed light, time, movement and surface as it appeared to be and not as it was thought to be. Of course the modern movement that began with these painters was just as much about style as it was about anything else – the desire for the young to be clearly different from the prevailing trend.
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Japanese art offered the proto-impressionists the techniques and the subject matter to achieve this. Hokusai developed the idea of the sketch book, the art of the everyday in the early part of the nineteenth century. Originally for his own use, the thousands of observational, quirky drawings in fifteen volumes were published in1814 (it is these that Manet and Braquemond would have seen). These had a huge influence on other ukiyo-e artists and an apparently casual style of composition developed in the work especially of Hiroshige. This was characterised by seemingly random foreground objects, off centre focal points, large areas of blank page and figures appearing only partially on the page. Crucially, this new way of looking allowed figures to be seen and not see, as if covertly observed. All of this led to an everyday realism – something more familiar in twentieth century photography.

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If we look at the superb Kunisada print of a woman washing her hair (above), compare it with a European painting of the early part of the century (Ingres La Source 1820, right) and then with a Degas of the 1880’s (below) we see how far high art travelled in a short space of time and (even allowing the influence of photography) how enormous is the influence of ukiyo prints. Degas has dispensed with the classical motif, the all-over modeling, the idealised form, and the central composition. He has also removed himself from the scene. In the Ingres, the painter is visible through the direct gaze of the model. In the Degas as in the Kunisada,  the artist is remote. It is very striking how Japanese art not only gave European artists the validation to see the figure anew but also to depict the world as it is experienced.

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It wasn’t only in realism – the everyday – that the Japanese seemed to the French to be so effortless and at ease. Japan offered artists the chance to escape reality in new ways. Japanese narrative is not confined to the same literal readings as say western history painting. Ukiyo-e is unboundaried in showing the passage of time, different states of mind or different localities on the same page. This particularly appealed to the Symbolist artists of the latter part of the nineteenth century. Artists such as Gauguin, Gustave Moureau and Odilon Redon recognised a liberation from Realism in ukiyo-e in colour, sensation and poetry. Redon’s Sita of 1893 (right) uses the rich colours of the Meiji print and the graphic techniques of ukiyo-e in order to realise his mystical vision. The shunga print from the Tale of the Genji (below) uses near identical colours and motifs to achieve the same end.
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Not enough serious research has been done to identify the route back – how much ongoing influence the art of the west had on Japanese artists after the trade agreements of the 1860’s. It is well known that Kuniyoshi was very influenced by Dutch engravings of Italian paintings in the 1830’s but there is a westernisation that pervades the work of the best of the Meiji artists which is a curious echo back of their own exported vision. In the prints of Yoshitoshi and Chikanobu one can determine the graphic style of contemporary European arts more strongly than that of the the Renaissance masters. Comparing the print ofPlum Blossom by Yoshitoshi with say, a print by Walter Crane from 1879, there are tantalising similarities of style – the line of the drapery, the use of colour, the articulation of the petals of the flowers and the information embedded in the cartouche. There are numerous examples of British Victorian illustrators working in this style and Japanese artists working after Yoshitoshi, but little or no research beyond the known use of classical perspective by woodblock designers.
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We have then perhaps, a two way valve – traditional ukiyo-e swayed by western innovation, certainly in the work of artists such as Toyohiro and Kuniyoshi. The mass export of Japanese art to Europe and America in the 1860’s and the renewal of redundant painting styles as a consequence, and perhaps the repatriation of that innovation not just through the depiction of top hats and railway locomotives but also, through illustration, of a new graphic identity. The legacy of this intimate dialogue being the twentieth century work of designers such as Alphonse Mucha and the whole Art Nouveau style and its development of European Modernism.
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Impressions of Women in Japanese Prints is open at the Toshidama Gallery from 1st February 2013 until 15th March 2013.

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