New Show Explores Influence of 19th-Century Japanese Art

by Sura Wood

In 1853, when American ships forced Japan, a country that had existed in virtual isolation for nearly two centuries, to open its ports, the Western art world would be forever changed.

Japan’s sophisticated aesthetics and rich artistic heritage would influence artists and designers in America and Europe and shape tastes among collectors, while simultaneously igniting the public’s appetite for all things Japanese.

“Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh and Other Western Artists,” a new traveling exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, surveys the phenomenon, dubbed “Japonisme” by the French, and examines how it changed the course of Western art. The exhibition features 170 predominantly Western artworks, ranging from Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by Monet, van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard and Mary Cassatt, to woodblock prints by revered Japanese figures such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai and decorative objects like fan-shaped, blown glass vases and desk accoutrements by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

“Japanese art had a tremendous impact on all aspects of cultural production in the late 19th century,” says the museum’s curator of Japanese art, Dr. Laura Allen. “Because
of Japan’s long period of national seclusion, it [also] had the cachet of being new, different and perhaps most important, fashionable,” she continues. “To some extent, referencing Japanese art and culture was critical for [Western] artists to stay on top of the latest trends. The themes they saw in Japanese prints—scenes that capture the energy of urban life, quiet domestic activity or pictures of landscapes under changing weather conditions—confirmed their vision of how to represent modern life.”

Van Gogh, Cassatt and Monet in particular were avid collectors of Japanese prints. Monet, who owned more than 200, was especially drawn to landscape artists Hokusai and Hiroshige and their keen observations on the ephemeral nature of the seasons and transitory effects of changing light on a scene. Monet, who expressed a desire to be compared to those old Japanese masters, once told a critic, “Their exquisite taste has always delighted me, and I like the suggestive quality of their aesthetic, which evokes presence by a shadow and the whole by a part.” Monet’s Japanese-style garden at his home at Giverny, with its gently curving footbridge, a familiar motif in his late-career paintings inspired by Japanese prints, appears in “The Water Lily Pond” (1900), one of the artist’s multiple views of water lilies. That work is paired here with Hiroshige’s “Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge” (1857), a site in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) illuminated by a full moon. As in Monet’s painting, the bridge is seen from below and cropped at both edges of the picture.

The juxtaposition of examples of Western and Japanese art placed sporadically throughout the exhibition “underscores the degree to which Japanese approaches
to composition, line and color helped define what we think of as modernism,” notes Allen. “Seeing Japanese art in this way also allows us to tune into its exceptional qualities: remarkable two-dimensional designs; clean, supple outlines;
and dynamic compositions.”

Van Gogh, who thought of Japan as a utopian environment he hoped to recreate in his studio in the South of France, was known to carefully copy woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen. Using oil on canvas, he incorporated their bright colors, spare composition and bold outlines in paintings such as “Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888), in which a weathered, bearded man dressed in a navy blue uniform with brass buttons and matching cap sits awkwardly in a wooden chair. The portrait, with its intense, exaggerated facial features, is reminiscent of “Actor Onoe Matsusuke IIas the Carpenter Rokusaburô” (1814), Utagawa Kunisada’s visceral rendering of a Kabuki performer.

Bonnard employed the strong color contrasts favored by the Japanese for atmospheric effect in his lively “The Square at Evening,” where the understated grays and charcoals of an evening out on the town are interrupted by a single dash of vibrant red; the lithograph is from his 12-part suite “Some Scenes of Parisian Life,” created at the turn of the 20th century. Imagery of bustling city life like that in Bonnard’s work was inspired, in part, by ukiyo-e prints. Though the term originally referred to entertainment districts in Japanese cities, and evoked a world of sensual pleasures—brothels, Kabuki theaters, chic dining spots, sporting events and scenic settings—the vivid pictorial style and the casual intimacy of the scenes depicted in them were new to Western sensibilities.

“There’s a strong relationship between ukiyo-e prints and Western avant-garde movements, including Impressionism and Post-Impressionism,” notes Helen Burnham, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which organized the show. “Western artists borrowed motifs and styles such as bright color combinations and broad blocks of color; dynamic and unusual points of view; asymmetry, patterning and abstraction,” she says. These elements are at play in works such as “The Century” (1895), a poster design by American artist Charles Herbert Woodbury; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “The Jockey” (1899), a print that conveys the energy and excitement of being at the races. To accomplish this, the artist invites viewers into the action
by pushing the horse and rider to
the front of the picture plane, a convention he likely appropriated from Japanese prints.

A section of the show devoted to women artists and subjects includes Emil Orlik’s 1899 woodcut “Englanderin,” in which an elegant woman, enjoying a moment of reverie in the privacy of her salon, leans back in her chair, a folded newspaper resting on her lap. It’s an example of the subtle and varied ways in which Japan’s frankly sensual portrayals of women infiltrated Western art. Early in the Japonisme craze, sexually alluring European beauties were shown wearing kimonos, and many Westerners bought into the myth, widely disseminated in popular culture, that Japan was filled with courtesans. But Japanese images also showed women engaged in ordinary domestic activities, “providing models for artists like Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cassatt, who … portrayed similar moments in the lives of women,” says Allen. Cassatt and Helen Hyde, who are represented in the show, were inspired by works, like Kikukawa Eizan’s “Otome” (1818-23), from the early 1800s. Especially poignant are Cassatt’s “Under the Horse-Chestnut Tree” (ca. 1895) and “Caresse Maternelle” (1902), which capture the tender bond between mother and child.

The exhibition, which makes its final stop in San Francisco, offers visitors a new understanding of an exceptional story of cross-cultural fertilization and its impact on Western art.

”Looking East: How Japan
Inspired Monet, Van Gogh and
Other Western Artists”

Oct. 30 → Feb. 7

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St., San Francisco