Friday, November 6, 2015

'Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists' at the Asian Art Museum

Japanese portrayal of Commodore Matthew Perry’s gunship in Edo Harbor, 1853, block print, artist unknown
In 1853, Commander Perry famously forced Japan to end two centuries of self-imposed isolation and sign treaties opening its ports to trade with the Western powers. As Japanese prints, albums, and objects began to arrive in Europe and North America in unprecedented quantities, a craze for all things Japanese set in among collectors, artists, and designers.

Full review here:

A page from Random Sketches by Hokusai (Hokusai manga)
Whether it was used to pad a crate of porcelain is unproven, but it is certain that one of the fifteen volumes of "Random Sketches" by Hokusai (Hokusai manga) was in the possession of the well-known Paris-based printer Auguste Delâtre, who had it at his workshop by 1856. That year he showed it to the artist Félix Bracquemond, who was impressed enough to try to buy the book. Delâtre refused to sell and continued to show it to other artists for whom he printed.

 A year later Bracquemond purchased another copy for himself and, in addition to immediately incorporating some of Hokusai’s motifs in his own work, shared the images in the book with many of the artists in his circle, including Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Whistler.

(left) Mary Cassatt, Woman Bathing, 1890–1891, color aquatint and drypoint; (right) Utagawa Hiroshige, Kinryuzan Temple in Asakusa, from the series, One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1856), color woodcut with ‘lacquer’ and embossing.
 Not long after, Japanese books and prints were much more easily found and obtained in Paris. Shortly after that, by the late 1850’smore , Western artists were discovering Japanese art and incorporating it into their work. The first discoveries led to admiration, then imitation, then innovation, then a true synthesis.

Known by the French term japonisme, the phenomenon created a radical shift in Western taste toward Japanese aesthetic principles. Japonisme played a prominent role in the major movements of Western art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among them Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Art Nouveau, and influenced everything from architecture and furniture to book illustration and painting.

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum surveys this sweeping development in the traveling exhibition "Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists.”  This in-depth and richly rewarding traveling show is a loan from the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which drew on its incredible collection of Asian art.

Comprised of more than 170 art works, the exhibit is organized into four themes: women, city life, nature and landscape. Within each theme, artworks from Japan are paired with American or European works to represent the West’s assimilation of new thematic and formal approaches. The Asian has also thoughtfully provided a complete time line of the transmission of art from East to West for those seeking a deeper understanding of this complex topic.

Carp banners in Kyoto, 1888, by Louis Dumoulin
The first works in the show make it very clear that while Western artists may have admired Japanese prints, they didn’t have a clue as to how to go about assimilating the work into existing styles. The elegance of simplicity, open space, irregular forms, the use of natural materials - in fact, the real essence of Japanese art went right over the heads by a number of the Western artists represented in the opening section of the exhibit. Louis Dumoulin’s “Carp banners in Kyoto (1888) is a heavy, heavily painted work not lightened up by the carp banners floating in the typical western 3-dimensional treatment of space.

Or, for instance, this inkwell by French artist Legrand which is described as, "Silver, partially gilded, decorated in champlevé, basse-taille, and cloisonné enamels, with cut out base supported on four cast turtles, enameled with geometric patterns, naturalistic scenes, and facsimile prints surrounding a sea with carp. Fitted with a drawer etched and parcel-gilt in three colors. Base supports four shaped letter racks in geometric patterns flanked by two rolling blotters topped with "shi-shi" dogs holding brocade balls. Removable central section has a vase-shaped pen holder decorated with female figures, plants, and field mice in kimonos, flanked by nesting boxes enameled in landscape and geometric motifs. Removable lids topped by a beetle and a wasp in gold and basse-taille enamel." Did they leave anything out?

Most of the decorative objects in the show have this same kind of over the top use of Japanese patterned design with the Victorian love of “more is better and even more is better yet.”

 Not all of the pairings work in terms of art-to-art direct inspiration - Mary Cassatt’s lovely painting of a mother and child owes as much to centuries of depictions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as it does to Japanese prints of mothers and children. Van Gogh is known to have copied Japanese prints and even used their images in his work but his portrait of "Postman Joseph Roulin" is not an homage to Japanese art but pure, unadulterated Van Gogh. The section on women has more than its share of courtesans, both east and west. Both Japan's licensed pleasure quarters and 19th century European brothels and streetwalkers presented a lot of inspiration for those interested.

Where Western artists begin to integrate Japanese art into their own work is first apparent in the section on prints - Toulouse Lautrec’s “Little Casino” with it’s dancing figure separated by a diagonal block of black against white and Degas’ romping horses show the direct but integrated influence of Japanese prints.

In the print "Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery," Degas made use of several features that are unmistakably borrowed from Japanese prints by Harunobu, Utamaro, and Hokusai. Compositions with two figures, one standing and one sitting or kneeling, are common in Japanese prints. So is the geometric division of the background that, in Degas’ print, is created by a series of vertical and diagonal lines that render the room abstract. Perhaps the most obvious borrowing is the standing figure who leans on an umbrella; Degas took this directly from a sketch of a woman with a rearing horse in a volume of "Random Sketches by Hokusai," a book he would have studied for its depiction of the spontaneous, natural positions of figures, particularly women.

Where Western artists come into their own with an utterly unique synthesis of a multitude of influences is in the last gallery. The two Monet’s in the show are the best the city has seen in quite some time. Monet’s “Water Lily Pond”  with Its humpback footbridge arching over light-reflecting water is similar to the one seen in Hiroshige’s "Bamboo Yards, Kyôbashi Bridge." “Haystack” may owe their off center design to Japanese art but the impasto color and sheer beauty are again neither East nor West but solely Monet's own. Gauguin’s “Landscape with Two Breton Women”  uses  a Japanese influenced flat perspective but the bold, symbolic colors and symbolism are his unique hallmark, prefiguring his work in Tahiti. “I have never seen anything as beautiful as a tree” would be the theme song in the last gallery, where everyone from Munch to Gauguin to Behrens seem to be inspired by the vertical tree-trunk rhythms in one of Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.”

It’s really immaterial if all the Western artists in the show were directly influenced by Japanese art. Enough were to create an innovative synthesis between east and west. Plan to spend a delightful day to take it all in. While the big names in Western artist such as Van Gogh and Monet are what most of us know, the lesser known artists and the wealth of Japanese art offers a wider, deeper and equally insightful perspective.

"Looking East" will be on view from Oct. 30, 2015–Feb. 7, 2016 with the exhibition's final weeks marking the start of the museum's 50th anniversary year in 2016.

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