From Ukiyo-e to Modernism: How Japan Influenced The Next Generation of European Artists - By Christina Elia
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From Ukiyo-e to Modernism: How Japan Influenced The Next Generation of European Artists

By Christina Elia for The J-Pop Exchange


Ukiyo-e has become the defining art form of Japan’s Tokugawa Period. The genre blossomed in the archipelago from 1603-1867, but subsequently experienced a Western revival due to a 19th-century trade agreement between the United States and Japan. A blend between the realistic narratives of the Kamakura period and the decorative style of the Momoyama period, Ukiyo-e broadly refers to the practice of woodblock printing or painting, often depicting folklore, women, erotica, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, or other scenes from history and everyday life.

The art arose from a hedonistic lifestyle prominent in Japan at the turn of the 17th century. Following a change in the nation’s military dictatorship, lower-class citizens living in Tokyo (then called Edo) benefited from the city’s rapid economic growth by immersing themselves in local entertainment districts. Between theaters showcasing Kabuki, a classic Japanese drama, and the rising popularity of geishas, female performers who dance, sing, and wear distinct makeup, the euphemism ukiyo (“floating world”) soon took hold. Printed or painted woodblocks portraying this environment were referred to as Ukiyo-e.

Though Ukiyo-e began with screen painting, woodblocking eventually became the default medium for the genre. Hishikawa Moronobu, an early pioneer, is now considered the first Ukiyo-e master. Once reserved only for written texts, specifically Buddhist scriptures, woodblocking reached the mainstream in 1765, when new technology made it possible to print in color. Suzuki Harunobu, another master, popularized the practice of polychrome printing that same year. The process usually involved multiple people, starting with a designer who sketched the concept on paper, where it later proceeded to an engraver, a printer, and finally a publisher. By the late 18th century, however, individual artists already began to attract attention. Hokusai created his famous Great Wave off Kanagawa between 1829 and 1833; Kunisada printed his erotic parody of The Tale of Genji in 1848. Utamaro, famed for his depictions of beautiful women, had a prolific career in Japan, but gained an even bigger following when his work became widespread in Europe during the new height of “Japonism.”

The term was coined in late-19th century Europe to describe an increased interest in Japanese art, particularly Ukiyo-e and other media such as porcelain, silk, and bronze. The goods began arriving en masse in 1858, when the Tokugawa Shogunate opened Japan’s ports to international trade through The Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The International Exhibit then came to London in 1862, and showcased the largest collection of Asian art the West had ever seen. Five years later, the 1867 Paris World Fair included a Japanese Pavilion for the first time. By 1872, art critic Philippe Burty officially introduced the original French word Japonisme to the public, solidifying Japan’s imprint on the European imagination. This appetite for the exotic, coupled with Japan’s seemingly foreign aesthetic refinement, inspired European artists to break with convention and turn against the Salon-style, academic painting that had previously dominated the market.

Impressionism experienced the initial shift. Largely considered the first modern art movement, Claude Monet spearheaded its development with his Impression, Sunrise (1872). Monet was an avid consumer of Japanese art and amassed a large collection of woodblocks throughout his life, many of which are still on display at his home in Giverny, France. The artist was affected by the prints’ diagonal compositions and ordinary subject matter, evident in his use of color and radical switch in perspective in his Jardin à Sainte-Adresse (1867). He also had an affinity for the master Hokusai, whose renditions of flowers are said to have stimulated Monet’s fascination with water lilies. In 1876, Monet exhibited his large-scale painting La Japonaise, which depicted his wife Camille dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono and a blonde wig, emphasizing the intermingling of Eastern and Western tradition. Many others followed suit, most notably Auguste Renoir, who found inspiration in woodblocks depicting Japanese tea gardens, Edgar Degas, whose series La Toilette drew from voyeuristic images of Japanese women, and Mary Cassatt, who created a series of etchings to pay homage to her favorite Ukiyo-e masters, Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Hokusai.

Ukiyo-e continued to impact the modern world long after Impressionism had lost its novelty. Vincent Van Gogh found solace in the woodblock’s flat color palette and simple, bold lines, leading him to create his Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain (1887) and his Portrait of Pere Tanguy (1887), which contained fragments from different Ukiyo-e works in the background Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a leading Post Impressionist, developed his characteristic portrayal of the Parisian nightlife by turning toward Japanese Kabuki. Even American architect Frank Lloyd Wright boasted about his massive collection of Japanese prints, purchased at the turn-of-the-century after numerous trips to Asia. Each constructed their own interpretation of the genre, the cultural osmosis visible until Art Nouveau concluded in 1910.

Given the constant overlap, it’s difficult to trace exactly when or why Europe distanced itself from Ukiyo-e. The 20th century avant-garde advanced at a swift rate, with new forms replacing old ones almost as quickly as they once arrived. Regardless of its evolution through time, however, it’s clear that Ukiyo-e marked a turning point for modern art. Japan managed to cross spatial and temporal boundaries from the comfort of its place in the East, a chain reaction still present in our contemporary world.

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