Seeing Paris through Hokusai’s eyes


In the often featureless landscape of Tokyo, a fleeting glimpse of Tokyo Tower in the distance can help to give a sense of direction and position. No matter how unfamiliar a particular street may be, seeing a familiar landmark in the distance often makes us feel strangely at home.

It may have been this feeling that Katsushika Hokusai, the Japanese artist and lifetime resident of Edo, was trying to capture when he produced his famous “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” each of which features the emblematic peak seen from different locations in and around the city.

Or it may simply have been a convenient way of “branding” his woodblock-print views of the capital for travelers to buy and take home to prove they had seen the sights.

Either of these motives must have appealed to turn-of-the-century Parisian artist Henri Riviere, as he watched the familiar skyline of the French capital changing due to modernization, most notably during the construction of the Eiffel Tower between 1887 and 1889.

Born in Paris in 1864, Riviere was deeply influenced by the fad for Japonisme among French artists of his time, and in 1902 he created “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower,” which deftly substituted Paris’ new symbol of modernity for Mount Fuji, Edo’s timeless symbol of eternity.

One of the series of 500 prints, which was a tribute to Japanese art in general, and Hokusai in particular, can currently be seen at the “Henri Riviere: Les Trente-six Vues de la Tour Eiffel” exhibition at the New Otani Art Museum till Oct. 22.

Riviere initially came into contact with Japanese art through Samuel Bing and Tadamasa Hayashi, dealers whom he met at the Chat Noir cabaret that was the center of Paris’ bohemian community in the 1880s and ’90s — and which spawned an eponymous magazine to which Riviere contributed. After beginning to collect ukiyo-e — Japanese woodblock prints — he was soon studying the techniques used to make them.

What is remarkable about the series of prints that Riviere subsequently produced is that, despite owing an immense debt to ukiyo-e, they nevertheless seem fresh and original. Though Riviere was paying homage to Japanese art, they escape the charge of being derivative, in marked contrast to many of his Japanese contemporaries who were then trying to emulate the methods and styles of European painting, often with lamentable results.

While Japanese artists trying to learn Western art would often blindly follow Western techniques and use Western subjects that were foreign to them, Riviere was prepared to make bold changes to the format of ukiyo-e art to suit his own strengths. So, rather than trying to turn out ersatz views of Mount Fuji, he stuck to what he knew — the city of Paris.

He also allowed himself great freedom with the production process. Initially, he had intended to do the series as woodblock prints, but, as he was doing all the necessary stages himself — from sketching to carving the blocks to mixing the ink — he found it all too labor intensive, and switched instead to the simpler lithograph process. This also allowed him a greater fluidity of design that was ultimately more in keeping with the melodious lines of ukiyo-e.

Despite his radical changes in method, Riviere was able to maintain the essence and essentials of the Japanese art by using its aesthetic conventions in his compositions.

“De l’Estacade (From the Pier),” for instance, clearly shows several ukiyo-e devices at work, from asymmetry to a large object placed in the foreground — the wooden supports of the pier — to the truncation of the object by the picture’s edge. “Sur les Toits (On the Roofs)” shows the high horizon common in ukiyo-e, as well as the subtle use of silhouettes on the horizon, said to be characteristic of the work of Ando Hiroshige.

In several of the prints, as in some of Hokusai’s views, the famous landmark is not always easy to find, adding to our pleasure when we do locate it. In “Sur les Toits,” it is a phantom on the horizon, dwarfed by the chimneys but nevertheless noticeable thanks to its iconic shape.

The exhibition also shows some of the photographs Riviere took of the construction of the tower, as well as small reproductions of specific Hokusai works that inspired some of the views. Hokusai’s famous view from Ejiri in Suruga Province (Shizuoka Prefecture), with its windswept travelers, airborne papers, and twisting road is echoed in Riviere’s view “De la Rue Lamarck.”

But considering the nature of the exhibition — a blending of Edo and Paris — its high point must be “Les Peniches (The Barges),” in which the Eiffel Tower looms large over clouds of smoke from river barges, only to be drastically truncated by the top edge of the picture. This has the effect of giving the instantly recognizable Paris icon the flat-topped shape of the mountain once so familiar to the inhabitants of Tokyo.