Getting the Most out of That Art Exhibition Vol.01 Hokusai and Japonisme: Hokusai’s Impact on the West
Who hasn’t sometimes wondered what they should be looking at when they attend an art exhibition? Here, art writer, Makoto Murata, shares his insights into the unique aspects we should look out for with each featured exhibition.
Hot and cool J-Art: Volume 1. In this series we take a fresh look at Japanese art, or ‘J-Art’, from a global perspective, beginning with japonisme.
The term japonisme refers to the creative activity undertaken in the latter half of the 19th Century by Western Impressionist and Art Nouveau artists who, inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, pioneered a new form of expression. The Hokusai and Japonisme exhibition currently showing at Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art focuses on ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai, and looks back on the impact he had on Western art. Over a lifetime of some ninety years, Hokusai left more than 30,000 ukiyo-e and woodblock-printed books whose subject matter deals with the whole of creation, explaining why he has been singled out for attention. His works of art, from portraits to plants and animals, from landscapes to erotica, are superbly rendered and have a richness of expression that was greatly admired in the West. The exhibition is divided into six sections, beginning with Hokusai’s Permeation and continuing with Hokusai and People; Hokusai and Animals; Hokusai and Plants; Hokusai and Landscapes, before culminating in Waves and Mt Fuji. Previous japonisme exhibitions have featured works by such artists as Monet and Van Gogh but it was difficult to pinpoint which particular Japanese work of art, much less which part of a particular painting, their inspiration came from. With this exhibition, however, the Western works are displayed alongside the Hokusai works that almost certainly influenced them, making the connection quite obvious.
Let’s take a look at the exhibition itself now, starting with Section One. But wait… you don’t actually have to follow the sequence, you know. What usually happens at these exhibitions is that everybody pays great attention to the first section, meaning that this part is always crowded. So, by coming back to view the first section at the end, there are likely to be fewer people there. What’s more, although the real drawcard artworks tend to be placed later in the exhibition, by the time you finally make it that far you may well have run out of the energy to appreciate them properly! The first section of this exhibition features Hokusai manga (cartoons) and Hokusai picture books, as well as displays of the Western publications that were influenced by them. Art historians aside, it would be perfectly acceptable for the general viewer to come back to this section last, or even to skip it altogether. At any rate, with around 330 artworks on show and large crowds expected, it makes sense to prioritise the works you really want to see. In fact, these days even the organisers themselves suggest that viewers start with the less crowded sections.
In Section Two, the paintings of the much-anticipated Impressionists make their appearance. Here we can clearly see how the paintings and decorative plates on display draw on Hokusai’s work. For instance, if you look carefully at Alfred Stevens’ painting, A Duchess (The Blue Dress), you’ll notice in the background a folding screen featuring Mt Fuji. The way that the image of Mt Fuji, lifted from a Hokusai manga, has been crafted into this painting, indicates the level of interest that contemporary Western society had for things Japanese. The decorative plates and crockery on display were manufactured in pottery workshops and even feature direct copies of Hokusai’s works – downright piracy! If such a thing as copyright had existed in Hokusai’s day, imagine how wealthy he would have been!
In its early phase, japonisme saw Western artists depicting Japanese subjects and imitating Japanese art. The next step was for artists to incorporate the forms, colours and compositions of ukiyo-e into their own work. Practical application, in other words, of the techniques they had been copying – and this is where it becomes trickier to work out what the Japanese influences were. A good example of this is Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. It’s hard to know exactly where the japonisme in this painting is, but look carefully at Hokusai’s Seven Lucky Gods displayed alongside, and you’ll notice that the pose of Cassatt’s little girl is remarkably similar to that of Hotei, the pot-bellied god of good fortune, leaning back on his big cloth sack. What a contrast between the delightful little girl and the rather corpulent Hotei! We’ll never know whether or not Cassatt actually saw this particular drawing of Hokusai’s, but we do know that she was interested in ukiyo-e, which may have exerted even an unconscious influence on her work.
Georges Seurat’s, Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, is a more radical example. When you compare the shape of Seurat’s pointed, triangular rock by the sea with the shape of the wave in the Hokusai print next to it, the obvious similarity will make you laugh. Although, regardless of how similar these two shapes might be, a solid rock and a liquid wave are two completely different things, right? Nevertheless, it seems likely that Seurat was making reference to Hokusai’s work, and whether or not it was this particular print, there is no doubt that he borrowed ideas from ukiyo-e.
And now to the final section of the exhibition, Waves and Mt Fuji. It goes without saying that this section is named with Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series in mind, but the final highlight is Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series displayed at the end. Cézanne’s mountain certainly is a flat-topped mountain, not dissimilar to Mt Fuji, but that is not the influence we are seeing here. The influence is in the way that this mountain in the south of France is repeatedly depicted from varying angles and distances, in the same way that Hokusai depicted his Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. The influence of ukiyo-e landscapes on the Impressionists is thus not only seen in the use of colour, form and composition, but also in the repeated depiction of the same motif.
This exhibition really delivers, both in terms of quality and of quantity. As well as Seurat and Cézanne, there are numerous works that are well worth viewing for their own sake, such as Monet’s Bed of Chrysanthemums or Moreau’s Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. I would note that the scarcity of works by Van Gogh, one of the most important practitioners of japonisme, is no doubt due to the Van Gogh and Japan exhibition taking place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum at the same time. It would certainly be a good idea to view both of these exhibitions in conjunction with each other.
Hokusai and Japonisme: Hokusai’s impact on the West runs until 28 January 2018 at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno, Tokyo.
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.