Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Conversations in Color: French and Japanese Prints at the Smart Museum of Art

Kanae Yamamoto, Bathers in Brittany (1913)

When Japan re-opened trade routes to the West in 1854 after two centuries of economic seclusion, the influx of Japanese art into Europe and the United States was transformative. You can hardly look at the major Western painting and printmaking movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without factoring in the influence of Japanese woodblock prints; Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Cubism all took inspiration from the forms, styles and techniques of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” adapting the new possibilities these prints provided for color, space, decoration and illusion to startlingly different effects.

France was the cauldron of artistic innovation during this period, and Japonisme was everywhere in the culture. The canonical nineteenth century writers and literary critics Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were avid collectors of Japonaiserie; so was the composer Claude Debussy, who reproduced a detail from Hokusai’s famous print “The Great Wave” from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji on the 1905 cover of the sheet music for his symphonic work La Mer. The ukiyo-e-inspired lithographs of artists such as Edouard Vuillard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec were commissioned for the playbills and posters of Parisian theaters, cafes and cabarets. The exhibition Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints, which was on view this fall at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, looks at the conversation between French and Japanese prints during this decadent period of artistic flowering. 

Utagawa Kunisada, The Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Subashiri no Kumagoro, from Thieves in Designs of the Time (1859)

With over one hundred and thirty prints drawing from the Smart Museum’s permanent collection and supplemented by some key loans, Awash in Color focuses on the development of color printing in France and Japan, looking at how that emergent technology intersected with aesthetic and cultural practices by tracing the parallel histories of printmaking in each culture back into the eighteenth century. The exhibition seeks to understand the seductive, breathtaking power of the ukiyo-e tradition for French artists, but one of its key arguments is that Japanese artists were appropriating Western techniques and styles as much as France was appropriating Japanese art. Although I knew about the more pronounced synthesis of Japanese and Western traditions in twentieth century Japan, I was completely unprepared for the entire section of the exhibition devoted to a major Western import in nineteenth century ukiyo-e printing: the introduction of Berlin blue. Berlin blue was a pigment discovered in Berlin in 1704, and it came to Japan in the 1830s through Dutch and Chinese importers. The work of the Japanese printmakers who are most recognizable to us – such as Hokusai and Hiroshige – would be unrecognizable without it; it allowed artists of the period to expand from portraits and genre scenes into landscapes, covering skies and seas and touching up the shadows of waves and distant mountains with its indescribably dreamy lapis lazuli hue.

Berlin blue also bursts from the garments of fantastically adorned actors in Kunisada and Kunisada II’s macabre theatrical prints, which are so vibrantly colorful they tend to look as though they were printed yesterday. The costumes are as expressively detailed as landscape prints – they look a little bit like prints folded up into origami, prints-inside-of-prints, the folds of the fabric abstracting the vivid design. In Kunisada’s The Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Subashiri no Kumagoro, from Thieves in Designs of the Time (1859), the fish on the actor’s robe looks like it is about to leap right off of the costume and grab the pouch of money clutched in his outstretched hand. You can see that luminous Berlin blue in the weave of water.

Henri Rivière, Vegetable Garden at Ville-Hue (Saint-Briac), 1890

The late nineteenth century French artist Henri Rivière picks up this color in his Breton landscapes, vistas that blend the rural aestheticism of Hiroshige’s views of Edo with the realism of Jean-François Millet’s paintings of agricultural laborers, while Kanae Yamamoto, an artist of the early twentieth century Creative Print Movement in Japan that combined the processes and techniques of western art with the ukiyo-e tradition, continues this thread of artistic appropriation that runs through the exhibition. In Bathers in Brittany (1913), a woodblock print that references late nineteenth century French Breton landscapes like Rivière’s that owed their look and feel to ukiyo-e, Berlin blue suffuses the composition, drawing together the patterned apron of the woman on the shore with the placid depthless sea.

It’s no longer politically correct to refer to non-Western art as exotic, but there’s still something to be said for the experience that you can have of being blindsided by the utterly new: the unfamiliar and the extraordinary, the things that exist on the margin of your cultural imagination and force you to confront the internal disorder that encounters with art can bring. Awash in Color is an illustration of how exoticism can go both ways for two artistic traditions where the exotic allure of color became the basis of a cultural dialogue.

Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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