Japanese Ukiyo-e and European Art: Liberating the Nude

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Liberating the Nude

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The picture to the left here is a woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada from 1855. At first glance it seems unremarkable, albeit very beautiful; richly coloured and drawn with great originality. It is in fact a complex and fascinating thing, overlaid with meaning both within itself and outside in the world. Below is a drawing by Edgar Degas made in Paris in  the 1880’s and further down the page a famous painting by Matisse from 1907. What connects these three images? Aside from the obvious subject matter I think that a clue lies in class – the social class of the subject and then by extension the social class (or more accurately the expectations) of the class who are the intended viewers.

Japanese woodblock prints are the product of a metropolitan and therefore an urban and popular culture. There’s a history of finely wrought and expensively made art for the samurai class that dates back centuries, but ukiyo-e (literally “pictures of the floating world”) are not from that scene at all. The great prints which are so much admired today and which command increasingly sizable prices at auction were specifically directed at the general milieu of the city of Edo (Tokyo). The consumers of these cheap artefacts were merchants: traders, shopkeepers, wholesalers and makers. The subject matter of the prints was invariably kabuki actors – kabuki being a populist form of entertainment – heroes of popular mythology or else the heroes and heroines of contemporary or historical tragedy. Nineteenth century Japan was turning its back on its feudal, aristocratic heritage and embracing city dwelling and the fortunes of trade. Ukiyo-e and kabuki provided a ready made culture to satisfy an exploding and feverish market. This is perhaps why academics have struggled for so long with great artists like Kunisada or Kuniyoshi – there is a distinct whiff of trade about the whole business.

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Western art on the other hand was exclusively engaged with aristocracy – with breeding, with the church and with the culture and concerns of the wealthy and educated elite. Paintings therefore tended to represent either cultured people (patrons), religious subjects or subjects from Greek mythology. The historical impulse to represent vigorous men and seductive women was consequently straitjacketed into a repertoire of handy set pieces: goddesses bathing or being ravaged, gods fighting or being heroic. All this led to a stagnation of ideas and technique in the mid nineteenth century and a genre of art called Academy Painting, still universally derided for its cliches and technical clunkiness. The new art of the impressionists, the realists, the symbolists and the cubists arose from a desire in younger artists to change the way they made art. Centered in Paris, a good deal of this desire for change seems to have spilled over from the political corpse of the Paris commune and the atmosphere of revolution that lingered in districts such as Montmartre. Japanese prints are widely recognised nowadays as being crucial in giving artists opportunities to experiment with new ‘realist’ and different ways of picturing the worldThe stylistic relationships between ukiyo-e and the impressionist artists is obvious but there were other, profound social changes that occurred also as a result of the new craze for all things Japanese.

The bathing woman at the top of the page is not a society belle or a goddess. She does not exhibit perfect formal beauty, nor does she adopt a pose that can be identified in a pre-existing Greek or Roman statue. She is an ordinary woman, observed casually by the artist, almost certainly drawn from memory and recognisable to Edo citizens who lived in single room houses and subsisted on modest incomes. For someone in the artistic scene of Paris in the 1860’s or 1870’s this would have been a revelation. For artists who were experimenting with realism (something already widely practiced in the literature of writers such as Emil Zola), these Edo prints, which effortlessly combined great skill and beauty with casual observation, would have provided a new direction with which to create a truly modern kind of art.

It is hard for us to appreciate at this distance the horror with which Manet’s Olympia was received by critics and the public in 1865. The subject alone – a well known prostitute – was bad enough but Manet also chose to paint in a style that revealed the everyday stuff of life, rather than in the distancing veils of glaze preferred by academy painters. The following years saw similar scandals as other artists followed the new trend towards realism (notably the impressionists). Degas is best known for such observations, his principal subject matter could be that of the ukiyo-e artist: prostitutes, dancers, washer-women and women engaged in everyday pursuits. Not something so startling to us now but in the second half of the nineteenth century this was a revolution and it produced some of the most familiar and best loved works of art to us today. We can see here in the work of Degas a change principally of class. Degas’ muses are now undressed of the baggage of ancient history; the people he paints are urban; makers, performers… doers. This is exactly the arena of the Edo artists. The shift in class took art away from the salons and the academies and created a new kind of urban appreciation that even now remains powerfully present.

Modernism (as it came to be called) liberated artists and created a new class of art lover – the middle class, urban dwelling enthusiast. In this way Japan was far in advance of the Europe; its own revolution although more protracted had necessarily had the same result. The nude was also allowed liberation although I’m not sure that feminists would agree that there is anything politically superior about Renoir’s puffed up beauties. However, for many artists, picturing women as they were – at work or in leisure – or else as they appeared, rather than how they were fantasised, was in fact a step towards the liberation of the female from the prison of fantasy. We can see this schism with the idealisation of the female body continue in Europe in the work of Matisse, Picasso and so many other artists. Looking at Matisse’s Luxe II (below) it is hard not to see the schema of the typical Japanese print let alone the etched line drawing that contains the flat, monochrome figures whose shape seems have so many of the stylistic quirks of the Kunisada at the top of the page, (compare the left arm and hand of the Kunisada with the same on the left hand figure of the Matisse).

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The title of the Matisse painting, Luxe II is derived from a series of work made during 1907 titled Luxe, Calme et Volupté, which itself derives from the (Japonisme enthusiast) Charles Baudelaire’s poem L’Invitation au voyage:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

Compare that to the traditional definition of ukiyo by the writer Asai Ryoi in his Ukiyo monogatari:

… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

The connections between the realism of the Edo artists and their escape therein and the same concerns of the European symbolists of the nineteenth century seem obvious and yet also understated in the literature. Perhaps a future understanding of the similarities of disparate cultures and their diverse connections will allow us to see art as less a national indicator and more of a human necessity.

Impressions of Women in Japanese Prints is open at the Toshidama Gallery from 1st February – 15th March 2012.

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