When rattling off major artistic influences in Western art during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. Navy Commodore, Matthew Perry, might not be the first name to spring to mind. But it was Perry, who — after roughly 200 years of national seclusion — insisted that Japan open itself up to international trade. The flow of artwork, textiles, pottery, and fashion caught the attention of Western tastemakers, and in doing so, altered the face of the modern world as we know it.
This relationship between the Eastern and Western worlds (or Japonisme, a term coined by French writers at the time for the enthusiasm and appropriation of Japanese art and culture from a European point of view) is put on view in Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists. Curated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, San Francisco’s own Asian Art Museum hosts the traveling collection of roughly 150 works of various mediums through February 7th.
On view are pieces by eminent Japanese artists Kikukawa Eizan, Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada, and Katsushika Hokusai, among others. Alongside these masters are the European and American artists they directly inspired — from the likes of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, to Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. It was these artists who thrilled their viewers during the mid-19th century with their radically new approach to painting. The approach was a far cry from the renderings of their Realist predecessors, who, above all, favored everyday subject matter, free from stylization or exoticism. Artist working under Eastern influences had different ideas. Images became more expressive. Dimensions were flattened. Composition favored asymmetry over academic balance. Even the palettes shifted from local color to vivid, exaggerated tones.
The bulk of Looking East focuses on side-by-side comparisons of European modern artists and the Japanese artists who have directly informed them. And it’s surprising, really, to see Mary Cassatt’s 1896 drypoint and aquatint “Under the Horse Chestnut Tree” next to the 1814 “Evening Bell of Mii Temple” woodblock print by Kikukawa Eizan. Cassatt’s paintings are so recognizable, so iconic, so “Mary Cassatt.” Yet next to Eizan, Cassatt’s signatures — large patches of color, diagonal composition, informal subjects — suddenly have an origin.
Equally as striking are works by Vincent van Gogh. Another artist known for his distinct style, it was van Gogh himself that said, “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.” It shows. His 1888 oil painting “Postman Joseph Roulin” is all flattened space and elegant black outlines — positively kabuki portrait-esque.
But perhaps one of Looking East’s clearest comparison of Eastern influences on a singular artist comes through in works by Claude Monet, a man so inspired by Japanese art and culture that he famously had a Japanese-style bridge and lily pond built on his property in Giverny, France. His oil paintings “Seacoast at Trouville” and “Haystack (sunset)” done in 1881 and 1891, respectively, are hung alongside “Mariko Famous Tea Shop” and “Yokkaichi: Mie River,” both 1834 woodblock prints on paper by Utagawa Hiroshige. Hiroshige’s influence on Monet is tremendous. Borrowing virtually every element from his inspiration, Monet processes these details and makes them his own. “Haystack” is possibly one of the most iconic French Impressionist images. To see that its roots are firmly planted in Japan turns it from a symbol, into a story of globally shared expression.
There’s an oft-told anecdote from the mid-19th century that tells of Japanese artist Hashimoto Sadahide dropping his tools into the water while sketching trading scenes at a port in Yokohama. It’s said that Sadahide borrowed a pencil from a passerby, a foreigner, and with it was able to complete the draft of his 1861 “Picture of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise.” Whether or not the story can be confirmed, it’s certainly telling of the period.
While the quality of the Looking East is (predictably) stellar, the real “take-away” from the collection is this this incredible link that exists between Western and Eastern artists. It’s rare to see both sides of Japonisme presented together — and then to see how it dictated all matters art and design across modern Europe and a developing United States. The relevance of Japanese culture is certainly an impressive one.
“Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists” will be at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco through February 7, 2016.