Japanese art prints have triggered the artistic revolution in Europe. Who could think of that?!
From the 1850s onwards an actual fashion craze for Japan has started among wealthy citizens of the western world. After two hundred years of isolation this distant and yet unknown country has opened its doors to trade with Europe. New kind of goods had flooded high streets of London, Paris and Amsterdam. Kimonos, fans, porcelain and prints were selling like hot cakes. Moreover, the influence was not only superficial and casual but has reached deep roots of European culture. Actually, it changed our culture forever.
After years past we do not realise the tremendous impact it had on the modernist shift in our art. I dare to say that such an intensive fascination with Japanese art was the very source of European artistic revolution which started in the middle of the 19th century. So-called Japonism has spread among the most progressive and later on the most influential artists of that time. Today we call them modernists and praise for a whole new approach to pictorial art.
The thing is what Westerners regarded as new or even revolutionary in art was already present in ukiyo-e prints. And the two generation of modernists – from Manet to Gauguin – have been absorbing the artistic ideas, techniques and style of Japanese masters like sponges.
Take Impressionists’ fresh apprehension of a landscape. Needless to say the two great Japanese landscapists – Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige – were the most appreciated artists among collectors, critics and young painters of that time. Hokusai’s prints were regarded as rivaling Watteau in their grace, Daumier in their energy, the fantastic terror of Goya and the spirited animation of Delacroix. Camille Pissarro called Hiroshige ‘a marvelous impressionist’.
The other father of the Impressionism, Claude Monet has been absolutely enchanted. It is said that he first came upon Japanese prints in a spice shop in the Netherlands where they were used as wrapping paper. Later on, the painter went berserk on collecting ukiyo-e art and decorated his home in Giverny mostly with works of Kitagawa Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. He framed and put on walls in his dining room 56 engravings, but they were also in the entrance, the grocery, the blue living room, the staircase, the hall, the rooms, and even bathrooms! Certainly, if there was a fridge at that time one could find framed Japanese print in there too.
What exactly modernists have adopted from Japanese artists? Lots of them perfected for years technique of woodblock printing. Like Edgar Degas with his friend Mary Cassatt. Then the Nabis: Vuillard, Bonnard, Vallotton. Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. However, it was not only technical inspiration and copying.
All of them felt encouraged by Edo masters to experiment with form. Flat planes of bold, unmodulated colour; unusual points of perspective (or abandoning perspective at all); simplifying forms almost into abstraction; focus on line – such experiments were the essence of modernist approach but were already present in ukiyo-e works. Therefore Japanese art became not only inspiration but also the confirmation of progressive vision European artists shared.
The same happened with the choice of subject matter. For instance, Utamaro’s graceful courtesans, bathers and mothers with mischievous children, were the validation of the same sort of themes and characters which emerged from within works of Manet, Cassatt, Degas and many more iconic painters who shaped the modern art.
Last but not least – Vincent van Gogh. His passion for Japan has reached a whole new level. The painter who always felt deeply (and much deeper than others, to be honest) desired to find inner samurai within himself. Together with his brother he gathered a sizeable collection of Japanese prints, copied some works, especially by Hiroshige, then he introduced motives and themes of Edo school into his art.
While others were inspired or influenced, van Gogh was genuinely overwhelmed. At one point in his life he simply wanted to see, feel and understand the world around just like ukiyo-e printmakers did. After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently – he once wrote to Theo van Gogh.
It is difficult to comprehend at once but the true art lovers have to take into account the idea that unique Vincent’s style we find so captivating would have its roots deep under the Fuji mountain. And after that realisation, we need to have a second look at works of Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, Koson to find out what we have missed for too long.