How Japan’s art inspired the West

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

In the decades after Japan was forcibly opened to large-scale international trade in the early 1850s, a fever spread across Europe for items from the exotic country: its textiles, ceramics, paper fans, woodblock prints and more. Meanwhile, the term “Japonism” was coined to describe works made in Europe and the U.S. that incorporated motifs and aesthetic principles from the fresh new imagery that adorned such imported goods.

Among its almost 150 exhibits, “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” at the Setagaya Museum of Art introduces many Japonism items alongside some of the original Japanese works that provided inspiration.

In the exhibition’s first section, titled “Taste for Japan,” is a selection of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige illustrating his use of dramatic framing devices. One print from his series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” reveals a view of a distant shrine through a section of a circular opening in an otherwise blank wall. In “Plum Estate, Kameido” (1857), Hiroshige places a black tree in the immediate foreground, blocking off much of the view behind. This, along with another print in this section, was copied almost to the letter by Vincent van Gogh. Many other artists in Europe incorporated similar compositional devices and unusual viewpoints into their paintings — as would photographers, the exhibition later shows.

The Japanese influence, however, went beyond the impact of woodblock prints on painting and graphic design. An 1831 print by Katsushika Hokusai from his series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” features the iconic mountain in the background and a man fishing in the foreground. Both elements reappear as details in an inkstand intricately decorated in silver and cloisonne enamels made by the firm of Frederic Boucheron in 1876. Other examples of decorative arts include an electric-blue fan-shaped glass vase and an ornate desk set — letter rack, pen tray and the like — produced in glass with a metalwork grapevine motif.

The exhibition’s other sections are organized according to theme, starting with that of women. The pensive mood of paintings of European ladies with titles such as “Meditation” and “Reverie,” by Alfred Stevens and Edmund Charles Tarbell, respectively, are shown to have had counterparts in earlier Japanese prints of courtesans looking equally wistful, often sitting at low writing tables. This composition was apparently seen in Europe as analogous to how more European women were becoming involved in matters of the arts, letters and world affairs. In Japan, however, these courtesans were more likely composing love letters than drafting demands for female suffrage — their more liberal education came later.

Also in this section is the exhibition’s centerpiece, Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume)” (1876), a painting of Monet’s wife dressed in a kimono and surrounded by Japanese paper fans. Though the work attests to the vogue for all things Japanese, we can see why Monet dismissed it later as simply “a whim,” with his other works showing an assimilation of Japanese aesthetic practices at a deeper level.

The “City Life” section reveals that as Western artists attempted to capture the spirit of urban Paris, London and New York, they were impressed by Japanese art’s depiction of life in Edo. An Edo-Period (1603-1868) depiction of a crowded sumo tournament is displayed near a Meiji Era (1868-1912) print of a racing track in Ueno park, showing how different types of entertainment were enjoyed in the city at various times. Keeping up the sports theme, a French poster for an aperitif marketed as a health-giving tonic depicts a bicycling race, just as the athletes take a sharp bend. It shows how the artist, Edouard Vuillard, internalized lessons learned from Japanese prints: a bold composition, skewed perspective and effective use of negative space in the areas left white.

Artists in the West also viewed Japanese expression as highly in tune with nature, something they hoped to emulate. The “Nature” section shows how this development boosted the decorative arts, which was gaining ground as a serious art category, and became a key element of Art Nouveau. In Europe, particularly popular motifs borrowed from Japan were cats and tigers, as well as birds at rest or in full flight. A turn-of-the-century Palteelfabriek Rozenburg earthenware plate, decorated with an image of two birds, is shown to be closely modelled on a print attributed to Katsukawa Shunsho from a century earlier and featuring a circular design of cranes and a plum branch.

Sometimes just a simple detail from a Japanese work was enough to inspire a European artist to try a new compositional approach. In the “Landscape” section, Monet takes a wind-blown tree from a Hiroshige print as the central motif of his “Seacoast at Trouville” (1881).

Monet, of course, is well known for building a Japanese-style water-lily pond in his garden at Giverny. No exhibition of Japonism would be complete without some of the paintings he made of the pond, and the “Looking East” section, which rounds off the show, obliges with a couple of examples.

“Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” at the Setagaya Art Museum runs till Sept. 15; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.setagayaartmuseum.or.jp