The Allure of Japanese Art

Reviewed by Kunio Francis Tanabe
Sunday, August 21, 2005


Cultural Crossings Between Japan and the West

By Lionel Lambourne

Phaidon. 240 pp. $69.95


The Bing Empire

Edited by Gabriel P. Weisberg, Edwin Becker and Evelyne Possémé

Mercatorfonds. 295 pp. $69.95

The celebrated Parisian critic Edmond de Goncourt probably said something like "Would you like to come up and see my Japanese prints?" as a come-on to his many lady friends. What we know for sure is that they were seen by some of the seminal artists and writers of his day: Edouard Manet, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Degas, to name a few. In Japonisme, Lionel Lambourne quotes extensively from Goncourt's Journal and confirms how influential he was in bringing the craze for Japanese art to Paris: "Rodin, who is full of fawnishness, asks to see my Japanese erotics, and is full of admiration before the women's drooping heads, the broken lines of their necks, the rigid extensions of arms, the contractions of feet, all the voluptuous and frenetic reality of coitus, all the sculptural twining of bodies melted and interlocked in the spasm of pleasure." Such commentary helps us see a direct link between Japanese art and Rodin's sculptures; more recently, Goncourt's Journal helped justify the ample inclusion of shunga (literally "spring pictures") in a show at the Grand Palais in Paris last fall. That popular exhibition, "Images du Monde flottant" (Images of the Floating World), demonstrated yet again the durability of Goncourt's artistic tastes. "Japonisme brought to the West a new coloration," he wrote, "a new system of decoration, and . . . a poetic fantasy in the creation of the art object."

Closer to home, for those planning to take in the current exhibition "East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection" (through Sunday, Sept. 4), Lambourne's book will provide what the visitor will not see and read there: a full discussion of japonisme and, more specifically, which Japanese prints influenced which Western artists. The Phillips show juxtaposes Hiroshige's multi-colored woodblock series "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" with art collected by Duncan Phillips.

Japonisme is filled with firsthand observations from a slew of artists such as Renoir and Monet. The author pinpoints the relationship between James McNeill Whistler's oil paintings, especially his "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony," and Torii Kiyonaga's work. A woodcut print of a group of Japanese courtesans entertaining a customer is juxtaposed with Whistler's painting of Western women dressed in kimonos: The composition and the perspective, with its view of the water, were clearly inspired by Kiyonaga's print, which, in fact, Whistler owned.

According to Lambourne, former head of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the word japonisme was coined in 1872 by Philippe Burty, a collector and author, "to designate a new field of study of artistic, historic and ethnographic borrowings from the arts of Japan." After two-and-a-half centuries of isolation, Japan had become an object of curiosity to the rest of the world. The Japanese exhibitions at the Paris World's Fairs of 1867 and 1889 were important opportunities to show off some of the nation's art. Japanese officials must have been astounded to discover that what impressed critics and artists in Paris was the humblest form of their art -- the woodblock print -- which back home could be bought for the price of a box of candy. Vincent van Gogh, an avid collector and admirer of Japanese artists, would have felt a kinship with Hokusai (creator of the masterful "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji") had he known how little money Hokusai made during his lifetime.

Among the notable items shown in Japonisme is an oil painting titled "The Duchess" (formerly known as "The Blue Dress"), by the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens. The figure of a pensive-looking young woman in flowing royal blue dress parallels ingeniously a gilded Japanese screen with a rustic scene in the background. In its composition and introduction of Eastern exoticism, the painting is reminiscent of Manet's famous portrait of Emile Zola (also reproduced in this book).

The Origins of L'Art Nouveau is a catalogue raisonné of an exhibition that will open in Barcelona next month (Sept. 6 until Jan. 29, 2006). It has already traveled to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich. The organizers acknowledge their debt to an earlier exhibition that was shown in Richmond, Va., in 1986, "Art Nouveau Bing: Paris Style 1900"; Gabriel P. Weisberg, who organized that show, is one of this catalogue's contributors.

Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), born into an affluent Jewish merchant family, left Germany in 1854 to work for his father's porcelain-manufacturing business in France. After his father's and brother's deaths, Bing used his expertise in ceramics and trading "to participate in the mania for Japanese curios." He eventually traveled to Japan, where his brother-in-law was consul for the German embassy in Tokyo, and there established ties to export a variety of Japanese art objects. Partly to promote his business, Bing launched a magazine, Le Japon Artistique , and organized exhibitions all over Europe. He even hired van Gogh to promote the magazine. Bing didn't pay him much but, according to the artist's own accounts, van Gogh was pleased just to be surrounded by Bing's vast collection of Japanese prints.

What put Bing on the artistic map was the opening of his Parisian gallery, L'Art Nouveau. Art nouveau originated with William Morris and his pre-Raphaelites, in Vienna's Secessionists, in Brussels among Victor Horta and others, all turning away from rigid classical designs and finding inspiration in nature -- in the shapes of flowers, birds and insects. Bing was the natural catalyst to unite his passion for japonisme and his skill in selling and manufacturing with the disparate art movements sprouting in various European cities. Although he cannot be considered the sole founder of this art movement, he was certainly a leader.

Bing's gallery, which he called a permanent collection, opened on Dec. 26, 1895 (at 22 rue de Provence). His mission was "to strive to eliminate what is ugly and pretentious in all things that presently surround us in order to bring perfect taste, charm and natural beauty to the least important utilitarian objects." The exhibition and this book bring together some of the furniture and jewelry produced in his workshops; the Tiffany vases, paintings and sculptures he acquired; and items imported from Japan. Perhaps the most intriguing item in the collection is a pendant in gold, green and blue created by Siegfried's son, Marcel. Crowned with a tiny ruby and wings of some exotic bird, the gilded image of a woman with long, flowing, wavy hair possesses the poetics of a Japanese print along with the qualities his father had described in the quotation above. Young Bing obviously learned much from the man.

(Those who cannot travel to Barcelona to see this exhibit can console themselves with the lingering memory of the fabulous, far more comprehensive exhibition five years ago at the National Gallery here in Washington: "Art Nouveau: 1890-1914." You can still revisit that one in a book of the same name edited by Paul Greenhalgh and published by Abrams.) ยท

Kunio Francis Tanabe is art director and a senior editor of Book World.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company