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Vincent Van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Madeleine Vionnet. What did this 19th century artist, architect, and fashion designer share in common? Very simply: They all incorporated Japanese techniques into their works of genius. When Commodore Perry opened the doors to this Eastern country in 1853, an abundance of unique and influential styles of art rushed out and captured the imaginations of artists throughout the Western world. As author Emile Zola once said,
It is certain that our students painting with black bitumen, were surprised and enhanced by these horizons, these beautiful vibrating spots of the Japanese painters in watercolours. There was a simplicity of means and an intensity of effect which struck our young artists and then influenced them with a painting filled with air and light
This flow of Japanese artistic riches and influence continues to this day. Ask any graphic designers including those at Walt Disney Company what country dominates the field of animation. Very simply, the same answer: Japan.
The Walt Disney Co. is used to creating its own animated movies, not importing them. That changed when "Toy Story" creator John Lasseter persuaded the studio to take a chance on the Japanese anime film Spirited Away by adapting it with English dialogue and releasing it in U.S. theaters. (Gardiner)
No historian knows for sure the Western artist who originally discovered the wonders of Japanese art; the debate continues to this day. According to one belief, Art Nouveau artist Felix Bracquemond was the first to be mesmerized after seeing the works of Katsushiika Hokusai in a Paris printshop three years after Perry's visit. Another historian says that in 1856 the American artist John La Farge began purchasing Japanese Ukiyo-e, or the traditional multicolored woodblock prints and began incorporating their designs into his oils, watercolors and stain glass (Encyclopedia of Visual Art, 441).
Regardless of who recognized this expertise before everyone else, it was not long before Japanese objects d'art were treasured by artists, collectors and critics throughout Europe and the United States. In addition, auction houses, bookstores and galleries began selling them to the public at large. World's fairs, such as the London Exhibition in 1862 and the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 spread the enthusiasm for Oriental art (ibid). The term Japonisme was soon coined by French art critic Philippe Burty to describe a new field that studied the influence of Japanese style on French art.
After seeing an exhibition of Japanese prints in 1890 at the ecole des Beaux-Arts, American Impressionist Mary Cassatt wrote to her artist friend and colleague "Seriously, you must not miss that. You who want to make color prints you couldn't dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don't think of anything else but color on copper....You must see the Japanese -- come as soon as you can (Library of Congress Exhibition)." Following the fair, Cassatt began using a Japanese motif in such works as The Fitting one of a series of ten color prints that are considered among the landmarks of Japonisme.
Over the next decade, knowledge of Japonisme grew significantly and people were no longer surprised at the remarkable beauty. At an exhibition in 1900 in Paris, the Japanese pavilion showed India ink drawings, calligraphy, and early sculptures from temples. "But Japanese applied art and woodcuts had already become so popular in Europe that the court art was regarded as exclusively an extension of it (Wichmann, 9).
In an essay written at the end of the 19th century, author Woldemar von Seidlitz highlighted the characteristics of Japonisme that were critical to present day European artists as well as to the future development of modern art. This article helped the artisans of that time better understand Japonisme. It also aided researchers in upcoming decades to obtain a much better idea of the extent to which Japanese art had existed in the West as early as the 1890s (ibid, 12). Von Seidlitz was not the only author to write about this major new entry into the Western art world. Painter and craftsman Marcus B. Hush's Japan and its Art devoted 17 chapters to the intricacies of the topic and C.J. Holmes' Hokusai clearly detailed the characteristics of the artist Hokusai's significant impact on European art of the second half of the 19th century (ibid).
Publisher and shopkeeper Samuel Bing is recognized as one of the individuals who very early on displayed Japanese woodcuts in his showrooms. He also displayed swords, lacquers and paper stencils, in addition to having his own exhibitions (ibid, 9). A deep admiration for Japan was shared by a number of important collectors, whose donations to newly founded American museums created permanent public repositories or displays. John Chandler Bancroft, William Sturgis Bigelow, Charles Lang Freer and Denman Ross amassed vast collections of Japanese ceramics and prints. Through a deed written in 1906, Freer's collections established the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Bigelow and Ross donated their holdings to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Bancroft bequeathed more than 3,000 woodcuts to the Worcester Art Museum in 1901 (Lears, 190);
Impressionism, an artistic style comprising work produced between about 1867 and 1886 that attempted to accurately and objectively record visual reality in terms of transient effects of light and color, was one of the first formal art movements to incorporate Japanese lines and color. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who spent much of his career in London collecting Japanese woodblock prints, was among the first American painters to include the lessons of Oriental art into his pre-Impressionist work. His oil sketch Rose and Silver shows a female figure holding a fan and clad in a kimono robe against a multi-paneled screen (Merrill).
Surely Vincent Van Gogh has to be considered one of the leading supporters and incorporators of Japanese style. Through ongoing letters to his brother, Theo, he emphasized how important this Oriental creativity was to his endeavors. For Van Gogh, the influence of Japanese art noted a change that would erase the old academic, classical concepts of European art (Wichmann, 40). "The dream stands side by side with reality, the brightest light with opaque darkness, color with tonal variation, space with surface; peace and harmony, too, stand side by side with uproar (ibid)."
Van Gogh wrote his sister how Buddhism was also impacting his life. He even shaved his head to look more like a Japanese. He deeply studied the works "not to simply comprehend Japan art by copying it, but to dig down to the very roots of Japanese culture to be able to generate original creative impulses of his own from the encounter."
American artist Frank Benson painted Impressionist images of table settings that mingled Japanese, Chinese, and American objects. Benson also applied Japanese technical considerations to his paintings. This interest is especially evident in a group of black-watercolor washes that suggest the swiftness and economy of Japanese ink painting. One critic, responding to an exhibition of such paintings in 1913, noted:
The simplicity and directness of rendering of these shell drakes, coots and terns in the simplest of black and white washes with only the slightest indication of the landscape background have scarcely any parallel outside of Japanese art. The medium, indeed, is handled much as one of the great Ukiyo-e masters might have used it and the recording of stored observations is not dissimilar in effect. That which one has seen and observed a thousand times one ought to be able to draw. (Coburn)
French post-Impressionist artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec collected Japanese woodcuts and regularly applied the visual language of Ukiyo-e to his prints and paintings. His portrait of a 19th century French actress Marcelle Lender, for example, draws on many of the conventions of Ukiyo-e actor prints such as the highly stylized pose, bold colors and patterning, flattened perspective, and asymmetrical composition (Library of Congress Exhibition).
In the approximately 30 posters completed over his life, Toulouse-Lautrec revolutionized the language of graphic design, with a decisive impact on its later development. He brought flat colors and the perspective of a Japanese aesthetic to poster design, making observers feel a part of the scene. He also used a special brand of typography, placing letters among the illustrations in a surprisingly attractive, imaginative way.
Regardless of the different viewpoints that individuals have had over the years concerning the erotic art of Aubrey Beardsley, during his short life he clearly demonstrated the growing influence of Japonisme. Japanese art set Beardsley free from British artistic restraints and enabled him to create his striking and personal style -- one that permanently changed book illustration on three continents (Zatlin). His work clearly drew on the asymmetry, economy of line, and decorative flatness of the Japanese woodblock print.
Art Nouveau, an artistic style of the 1890s in Britain and America, also is known for its significant inclusion of Japanese elements. In fact, a profound Oriental influence can be seen in virtually every discipline within this movement. Art Nouveau has been stated to be the first identifiable…[continue]
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