Japanese Culture and European Art of Fin de Siècle

As you might already know, Japan followed the policy of self-isolation from any foreign influence for several centuries. But in 1854 the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry forced the country to open up its borders and join the global cultural process. Active trading with Europe evoked interest to the oriental art and prompted Japan to participate in the World Fair in London in 1862. That caused an effect of exploded bomb – Western collectors and artists were fascinated with its sublimity and started actively purchasing, researching and copying Japanese art pieces.

Whereas before they were just a part of “chinoiserie” of rare occurrence, now Japanese artistic creations became more self-sufficient and popular. They hypnotized even simple bourgeoisie, who embellished their dwellings with fans, silk screens and prints. Of course, this fact couldn’t but reflected in the works of then-contemporary artists. For instance, James Whistler was one of the first to use elements of Japanese décor in his canvases. And Gustav Klimt had a big collection of Japanese kimonos and textile of Noh theater.


whistler klimt

By 1875 Japanese ‘fever’ hit even fashionable salons and stores. In a short while significant art merchants, who stimulated expanding of knowledge about Japanese art, appeared in Japan and Paris. In 1883 Louis Gonse organized a retrospective exhibition of Japanese art from the 9th to the 19th century, where, along with many other exhibits, some prints of Utamaro and first masters of ukiyo-e were presented. They had a great influence of synthetism and cloisonnism of Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and others.

In 1887 Vincent van Gogh, who believed Japan was a Paradise of art, prepared an exhibition in the Agostina’s Segatori “Café du Tambourin”, where solely prints imported from Japan were shown. Specialists believe that van Gogh‘s collection of color engravings contained more than 400 engravings. In his letter to Theo, the painter mentioned, “And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention […] I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes.”

Vincent van Gogh Katsushika Hokusai

Another prominent master, who took a great interest in the art of Far East, was Claude Monet. He once wrote, “If you absolutely must find an affiliation for me, select the Japanese of old times…their aesthetic… evokes a presence by means of shadow and the whole by means of a fragment”. Monet was constant in his passion for Japanese art, seeing it as a validation of his strive for a lightful coloring; he referred to some of typically Japanese motifs, like renown landscapes with bridges from his later period of life. Camille Pissaro shared this idea and wrote in 1893 about Utamaro and Hiroshige that “…these Japanese artists confirm to me our visual position.”

Japanese prints attracted painters with primitivism and purity of style, which reminded them often folk art. Gauguin and his followers, inherited attention to outline in drawing, bright local colors, absence of perspective, decorativeness of curvilinear forms and diagonal compositions. For instance, figures of Jacob and the angel from Gauguin’s “Vision after the Sermon” were inspired by Hokusai’s image of Sumo wrestlers. Paul Signac’s archive contains a design of a kimono, which pinwheel pattern has definitely served as a model for the ornament in his “Portrait of Felix Feneon.”

paul gauguin sermon jacob wrestling with the angel

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec also absorbs that refined feeling of rhythm, juxtaposition of color areas and clear module structure of composition. As one of founders of graphic design, he researched the problem of correlation between image and inscription, which is typical for Japanese art, perceiving them like an element of his works. Lautrec even stylized his own signature like Japanese round seal. For sure, these principles, which largely affected the language of lithography, transferred into the placard art, which flourished during Avant-garde.

Japanese art served as a sample of spontaneity, intuitiveness, asymmetry in patterns and priority of graphical over pictorial. Europeans were amazed by Japanese sensitiveness to Nature and often directly copied some floral ornaments and motifs, like irises. It played a noticeable role in shaping up thematic palette and visual language of Art Nouveau design. Roughly speaking, many of the key aspects of that style cannot be analyzed beyond the context of Japonism; it’s enough to mention that such outstanding designers as Siegfried Bing in Paris, Julius Meier-Graefe in Berlin, Arthur Liberty in London, Charles Tiffany in New York – all of them draw inspiration from it.

edgar degas kiyonaga

But it would be incorrect to claim, that it was only Western art, which has changed during that period. The opposite process of the reverse influence on Japanese artistic culture has taken its place as well. One of the firs Far East masters, who applied and transformed western artistic system, was Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita (1886 – 1968). Born and educated in Tokyo, in 1912 Foujita had a trip to London, where he acquainted with European art. A year later he persuaded his father to allow him to study in Paris; there the young man quickly familiarized with almost all recognized artists of the time, travelled a lot, organized solo exhibitions and gains solid reputation. They called him on European manner – Léonard.

The painter was accepted into the Ecole de Paris, where Henri Matisse, Henri Derain, Maurice Utrillo and other participated. His pieces, done in specific Japanese-European manner, attracted attention to the artist. He combined European sensuality, interest in depicting human body together with delicacy, austerity and lucidity of Japanese prints’ style.

Leonard Tsugouharu Foujita

The influence of Japanese artistic culture on European one was gradually shifting from superficial copying of forms and subjects into its deep understanding and its creative rethinking, which led to further radical changes in the artistic world – in fact, it was a crucial step towards Avant-garde and Abstractionism.

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