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Chasing Paradise: From Japan to Japonisme

Over the last several articles in this series we have explored Japan’s lengthy artistic tradition, from its philosophical roots in prehistory to its near-contemporary expression in ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. Japanese artists possessed — and still do possess — an elevated sense of craftsmanship and a complexity of cultural motivators that, while radically different from those we are used to in Europe and America, nevertheless pose a formidable alternative to naturalism.

Western art, it need hardly be mentioned, has from antiquity striven to show the world as it is. It emphasizes a naturalistic, three-dimensional depiction of form; linear perspective; and accurate and well-blended colors. This impulse to “realize reality” has led many art historians before the 20th century to select Hellenistic sculpture, Renaissance painting, and only a few other styles and periods as representing the pinnacle of artistic expression. It has long been an implicit assumption in the West that the best art is that which best mirrors reality.

In Japan, on the other hand, art’s goal was not so much to mirror reality as to become a means by which reality could be encountered on a contemplative level. Hence, strict depiction of form was often sacrificed to allow the artist to attempt to pursue the true nature of a thing. A mountain may not have all its rocks and crags, but it could still tower towards heaven through the mist. Art — both in the meditative process of its creation and in the reflective process of its observation — thus becomes a way of experiencing reality through abstraction itself.

Yet when Japan was opened for trade with the West in 1853, both artistic philosophies abruptly found themselves cast under the scrutiny of entirely new and inexperienced audiences. As with any new concept, the field quickly striated into a wide range of opinions.

In Japan, ukiyo-e woodblock prints continued to be popular. But there were subtle changes. In Utagawa Hiroshige’s Back of Mt. Fuji from Dream Mountain in the Kai Province from 1852, a natural color palette, isometric perspective, diagonal composition, and other elements common to much ukiyo-e art still dominate.

By 1861, however, when Utagawa Sadahide made Yokohama Trade — Picture of Westerners Shipping Cargo, one can see how the advent of Western trade had begun to alter Japan’s perspective on art. Especially in prints featuring scenes of trade with Western nations, a few subtle changes lend them an entirely different effect: the colors are of a European palette, featuring bright, artificial-looking reds, blues, yellows, and greens often found on the continent’s flags. Man-made ships and buildings increasingly block out nature from the scene, imposing themselves upon it by their sheer mass. The commercial begins to overwhelm the natural.

Yet, while many Japanese artists continued to stick with their own style, albeit with an encroaching Western influence, some were far more thoroughly impressed with the Western tradition.

Shiba Kokan, for example, was a Japanese artist who died in 1818, several decades before the nation was opened for trade. But, after encountering Western oil painting techniques, he lamented the state of his own culture’s artistic tradition rather harshly. “In ancient times,” he observes,

people were not concerned with the stress and character of the brush stroke. Fundamentally, a brush is a tool for drawing pictures. If one attempts to draw an ox without expressing the actual appearance of the ox, if one is concerned mainly with the impression given by the brush technique, then a mere spot of ink could just as well be called a picture of an ox …. The primary aim of Western art is to create a spirit of reality, but Japanese and Chinese paintings, in failing to do this, become mere toys serving no use whatever.

Both in his curious fascination with Western art and his unflinching rejection of abstraction, Kokan was remarkably prescient in anticipating the debates that would rock the art world in the coming centuries.

Kokan’s passion for European art would not gain traction immediately. Only towards the 1870s-1890s would naturalism (at least as it is understood in the West) begin to play a more prominent role in the Japanese arts. In works like Kuroda Seiki’s Maiko from 1893, for example, the textured brushstrokes, three-dimensional sense of space, and emphasis on dappled light and shadow is far closer to the Impressionists, who themselves were initially students of Neoclassical art, than to any traditional Japanese media.

Just as some Japanese artists began to develop the tools to reflect reality as it is, however, so many Western artists took inspiration from Japanese abstraction and began to meditate through their technique itself on what reality meant.

On one side of this spectrum, some artists were entranced by the ukiyo-e aesthetic and quickly subsumed it into the general nineteenth-century European trend towards decadence and excess. In James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, for instance, textured walls, rich gold wall décor and shelving, elaborately painted pottery, and over the mantel an Impressionistic painting of a woman in a kimono all contribute to an atmosphere at once orderly and overwhelming. One can almost imagine the smell of tea and spices drifting out into the hallway. Along with Whistler, numerous other Western artists including Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Klimt, Beardsley and Mucha all tapped into this vein of decadent Japonisme.

Other Impressionist artists, however, steered clear of the ornamented luxury of contemporary Japanese culture in favor of the simpler beauty of its natural landscapes — a meditative quality more in keeping with Buddhism or Shinto than of the “floating world.” Claude Monet, for example, famously took inspiration from Japanese nature scenes; his abstracted linework, atmospheric perspective, and delicate use of color all indicate his desire to ponder the natural world as part of the painting process itself. In depicting reality in a way it was not, he hoped to express something more deeply true about what it was. In this way, incidentally, the Impressionist movement became a perfect meeting ground for Japanese artists to explore naturalism and Europeans to explore abstraction.

As we begin to explore in more detail the impact of Japanese art upon our own Western cultural tradition, it is worth remembering that one of the fruits of the cross-pollination between East and West was a greater sense among all people of the possibilities for artistic expression. Yet that did not keep people from choosing sides. Some Japanese artists decided to embrace art as a mode to reflect reality back to the viewer; meanwhile, some Western artists chose to begin experiencing art as a kind of philosophy in itself.

Even as the distinctions between the two art forms continue to blur today, this line in the sand remains; these two fundamental attitudes towards art have lingered through countless debates. Is representational art to be preferred over abstract? Ought art to express meaning through symbolism or through an almost literal syntax? Can beauty be sacrificed for clarity of meaning? Can meaning be sacrificed for beauty? All of these questions hinge on one’s understanding of what art is really for. And as we turn now towards the reception of Japanese art in the West, it is with this question that we must begin.

Originally published in MutualArt Magazine on November 18, 2022.


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