Design & ArT Travel in Japan

Japonism and Ukiyo-e – European artistic revolution

claude monet dame monet en costume im Japonismus

Out of the top of your head, can you think of one thing that connects the art of Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Klee, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt and Wassily Kandinsk? Besides all of them becoming famous in their respective field of artistic expertise, they all shared a passion for Japanese art! Claude Monet praised Japanese artists for showing the Europeans a new form of image composition. Van Gogh wrote his brother Theo in one of his many letters that all of his works are to some extent based on Japanese art. The core element of Paul Klees art – his simplification of lines – and his ink paintings (calligraphy) show his inspiration from the strong key lines in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. But what exactly was it that caused the infatuation of many European artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries with Japanese art?

What is Japonism?

The Japanese Parisian – Alfred Stevens
The Japanese Parisian – Alfred Stevens – 1872 – Public domain WikiArt

Japonism is a societal and artistic movement in 19th century Europe. The word describes the aesthetic fascination with East Asian art from Japan, Korea and China (e.g. kimonos, bronze sculptures, silk, porcelain and also ukiyo-e woodblock prints). The exact roots of the word are not known, even though it certainly was first used in French artistic circles (the original French word is “Japonisme”). Japanese art started to become famous rather quickly, with its boom starting at the world exposition in Paris in 1867. At that time Eastern Asian artisan craftwork and art were so exotic and new to western audiences that it heavily influenced the European art world for more than 50 years. Ironically, despite the great interest in East Asian art, most art lovers in Europe never cared to learn about differences between East Asian cultures and art styles. This resulted in the word “Japonism” applying interest in almost every work of East Asian art during that time, disregarding whether it actually came from Japan, China or Korea. 

Japanese art of the Edo period

samurai ukiyo-e bilder
The actor – Utagawa Yoshitaro – ukiyo-e.org

Until the forceful opening of Japan in the fateful year of 1854 Japanese art was mostly unknown in Europe. Until that year Japan was (almost completely) isolated from the rest of the world, in a 200 year long time now called the sakoku (“closed country”). There were strict policies prohibiting emigration from and immigration into Japan and strongly restricting contact to foreigners. This resulted in almost no cultural or artistic exchange between Japan and Europe. 

Besides a strict and almost unchanging political status quo in Japan, the Edo period is often considered a golden age for Japanese arts and culture. The long peace provided by the authoritarian government diminished the importance of the warrior class of the Samurai. After centuries of civil war they suddenly had a lot of free time (and money to spend). In turn the merchant class – originally the lowest class of Japanese society (besides the classless) – gained influence and power. Business was flourishing, as the long lasting peace and security unleashed the productivity of the Japanese people.

Fast money was to be made and spent, and the entertainment industry grew to accommodate the money spending part of society. Both the aristocratic Samurai – the highest class in society – as well as the merchants – the lowest class – supported emergent and old arts alike. That included the kabuki theatre, rakugo, artisan craftwork and the up and coming art form of ukiyo-e. All of these arts slowly but surely became a part of everyday life in Edo period Japan. A typical afternoon for a town dweller during that time could have been to meet up with some friends to go see a Kabuki play after work, buy some Ukiyo-e prints of his favourite actors (to add to his collection at home of course), and then go for a drink that was served in finest pottery.

Ukiyo-e – The art of woodblock printing

fuji san ukiyo-e
Tama River – Fugaku Sanju-rokkei –  Katsushika Hokusai – 1829-1833 – ukiyo-e.org

Considering the use and price of ukiyo-e nowadays, many believe that the medium always was regarded as high art. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ukiyo-e prints in the Edo period were more akin to newspapers, magazines and advertising boards. They came in many forms: as picture books, illustrations to cheap novels, calendars or advertisements for all sorts of products, services and people (like actors or courtesans). Ukiyo-e were produced fast, cheap and en masse. The average price point for a print? Between 3-5 EUR or USD in today’s money.

“Used” ukiyo-e prints (which could for example have been the now famous “Hokusai Manga” by Katsushika Hokusai) were often used as paper in packaging for more valuable objects like porcelain. It is theorised that Europeans were first introduced to Ukiyo-e that way. Just imagine a wealthy Frenchman who ordered a batch of Japanese tea cups, a look of surprise showing on his face seeing the intricate drawings on the packaging material, marvelling at artistic styles so far unknown in the western world!

Ukiyo-e prints were some of the main contributors to the Japonism movement. Not only the prints of kabuki-actors, but especially landscape prints, which only just became popular in Japan in the early 19th century, were highly influential to the works of European painters. If you’d like to know more about ukiyo-e, its origins, genres and famous artists, head on over to our article about Ukiyo-e.

Japanese art coming to Europe

As mentioned before, in 1854 the Edo period came to an abrupt end through the pressure of an American fleet. An unequal treaty was signed, at first only with the USA, and in 1858 treaties were established with all major European nations of that time. Trade was now possible and a steady flow of Japanese goods entered into Europe. Japan was considered a third world country then, so that the products of (the today famous) Japanese craftsmanship were relatively cheap to buy. At the world exposition in Paris in 1867 the Japanese government saw a chance to present some of the many excellently crafted art objects the country had to offer. Following that Japanese art quickly gained popularity, especially in France, where it was appreciated by many art connoisseurs.

Ukiyo-e and European artists

paris city with the eiffel tower

Ukiyo-e in Europe were more than just curiosities bought by art collectors or Asia enthusiasts. Ukiyo-e had a profound impact on European art at the time, shaking the art world in its foundations. Attributes not seen in western art were especially fascinating to the young avant-garde of Parisian artists: the simplification of shapes with one-colored fields and strong lines, unusual combination of colors, compositions, the overall Japanese aesthetics and the portrayal of everyday life were something that adventurous artists tried to implement into their work.

The old art establishment in Paris was not fond of the new influences, which contradicted many rules in classical European painting. But painters like Monet, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh (and many more) were revolutionaries in their own right. They wanted to do things differently. Ukiyo-e provided them with much input for inspiration and ideas. Later in the century the whole artistic movement of Art Nouveau would not have been possible without ukiyo-e. The Japanese influence in Art Nouveau paintings is easily noticeable once you know about it, especially in the elements of clear color fields and strong lines.

Claude Monet and Japanese aesthetic concepts

The paintings of a Japanese bridge over water lilies is one of his most famous works. He was so taken away by Japanese gardening that a Japanese water garden was installed at his home in the French village of Giverny. There, among maple and willow trees, gingko trees and bamboo were planted and grew tall. He spent a lot of time in that garden, using it like a painter’s studio, capturing many of his landscape images there.
The Japanese Bridge The Water-Lily Pond – Claude Monet – 1899 – Wiki Art

One of the aforementioned avant-garde painters in Paris was Claude Monet, one of the most well known and first impressionist artists. He appropriated many elements of Ukiyo-e for his own artworks. He was said to have great sympathy not only for the aesthetic of, but also for the concept of ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e prints show the beauty of everyday life and objects, contrary to many of the historic, religious and mythological themes that dominated western art. In European art of the early 19th century beauty was attributed to the divine, to high culture, faith and aristocracy. In Ukiyo-e beauty was found everywhere, in the profane and earthly. Monet wanted to capture these moments of earthly beauty, which he often found in scenes of our ever changing nature.

Monet was not only fascinated by Japanese nature, but also by Japanese cultural objects, like fans and kimonos. In that fashion he painted a portrait of his wife. In the painting she wears a bright red kimono, wielding a folding fan and posing in front of many hand fans decorating the wall and showing scenes from Ukiyo-e. The man with the sword shown on the kimono pattern seems almost alive, ready to jump out of painting at any moment.

ukiyo-e bridge - utagawa hiroshige
In the Kameido Tenjin Shrine Compound – Utagawa Hiroshige – 1856 – ukiyo-e.org

The paintings of a Japanese bridge over water lilies is one of his most famous works. He was so taken away by Japanese gardening that a Japanese water garden was installed at his home in the French village of Giverny. There, among maple and willow trees, gingko trees and bamboo were planted and grew tall. He spent a lot of time in that garden, using it like a painter’s studio, capturing many of his landscape images there.

claude monet - japonism
La Japonaise (Camille in Japanese Kimono) – Claud Monet – 1876 – Wiki Art

Monet was not only fascinated by Japanese nature, but also by Japanese cultural objects, like fans and kimonos. In that fashion he painted a portrait of his wife. In the painting she wears a bright red kimono, wielding a folding fan and posing in front of many hand fans decorating the wall and showing scenes from Ukiyo-e. The man with the sword shown on the kimono pattern seems almost alive, ready to jump out of painting at any moment.

Vincent van Gogh and ukiyo-e

tanguy van gogh - Japonisms and ukiyo-e
Père Tanguy – Vincent van Gogh – 1888 – Wiki Art

Now here’s a man who could be considered an Ukiyo-e fanatic! The famous artist collected over 400 ukiyo-e prints during his lifetime. He admired the simplicity and elegant lines of the woodblock prints. That’s why he incorporated many core elements of Ukiyo-e into his own work, like asymmetric composition and unusual points of view. Van Gogh preferred painting self portraits to painting other people, but one exception was the portrait of Père Tanguy. Tanguy was a good friend of Van Gogh who owned a store for art supplies in Paris and supported poor artists, like the red haired Dutchman. In the portrait Tanguy is displayed with six ukiyo-e pictures in the background (a geisha, cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, a snowy landscape and Japanese flowers). This integration of Japanese images in the portrait clearly show Van Gogh’s passion for Japan.

utagawa hiroshige - the bridge
van gogh - the bridge

left: Ohashi at Atake in Summer Shower – Utagawa Hiroshige / right: the bridge in the rain – Vincent van Gogh – 1887 – Art Wiki

Other famous works that have been, let’s say, “inspired” by ukiyo-e are the “Flowering Plum Tree” and the “Bridge in the Rain”. He copied these two from prints of Utagawa Hiroshige. Nevertheless Van Gogh didn’t just copy Japanese ukiyo-e. He also used many of the techniques he learned this way in his original paintings, like the cutting off of objects and an elevated point of view. 

Gustav Klimt and his collection of Japanese art

klimt bild - the kiss
The Kiss – Gustav Klimt – 1908 – Wiki Art

Klimt was an extraordinarily influential and talented painter and is one of the main founders of the Vienna version of Art Nouveau, the Secession style. He was well known for his main themes of women, eroticism and joie de vivre. His style is heavily influenced by the Japanese artistic techniques of Kinpaku (beaten gold) and Rimpa. The Rimpa school of painting uses strong and bright colors, including gold and silver color, which can also be found in many of Klimt’s most famous paintings.

Japanese kinpaku art
Irises – Ogata Kōrin – 1692 – Wikipedia 

At the world exposition in 1873 in Vienna a Japanese tea room and tea garden where constructed. That supported the movement of japonism in Vienna, which in turn had an effect on Klimt, who grew up during that time. He himself was a collector of Japanese artworks, such as kimono, ukiyo-e, netsuke (small figures made of bone, tooth or wood) and Japanese lacquerware. One of his artist friends, Emil Orlik, also was a big fan of everything Japanese, which again strengthened the influence of Japanese art on the works of Klimt.

Emil Orlik and his journey to Japan

fuji pilgrim - emil orlik ukiyo-e und japonismus
Fuji-Pilgrims / Japanische Pilger auf dem Weg zum Fujiyama – Emil Orlik – 1901 – ukiyo-e.org

Emil Orlik, a graphic and woodblock artist from Prague, went on two educational journeys to Japan during his lifetime. His first one happened in 1900, when he was 30 years old. He spent 10 months in the land of the rising sun, studying with several horishi (wood carvers) and surishi (printers) to learn original techniques of ukiyo-e. The first station on his route was Tokyo. From there he headed out towards northern Japan via Nikko, Ikaho, Numata, Aizu, Wakamatsu, Niigata and Tsugawa. After that he turned south via Kamakura, Hakone and Shizuoka to spend the final stage of his trip in the former capital of Kyoto.

The inspiration and knowledge from that trip resulted in him creating many original woodblock prints of landscapes, using various techniques, like colored etching and lithographies. His most famous work is considered to be a collection of 50 prints called “Aus Japan” (Engl. “From Japan”). They display Japanese landscapes and life in Japan.

In 1912 he made half of a world trip with the final destination Japan. On his journey he visited Egypt, India and China. After finally arriving in Japan, Orlik spent around two and a half years there. He was planning to stay even longer, but had to interrupt his stay due to the First World War starting. Intensive studies of Japanese printing techniques right at the source gave Orlik the ability to integrate them into his own work like no other European. Many people therefore consider him the most representative artist for the artistic movement of Japonism.

Published: 24.06.2020 | Posted by: Colin

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