Japonisme in Japan and in China
Art Monthly, December 1988, pp. 11-12.
[Reviews of Japonisme, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; Ryazaburo Umehara Retrospective, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.}

“Blessed if I can see anything Japanese about this one either”, an Englishwoman said in front of Manet’s Le Fifre (1886). “Perhaps it’s the buttons on the uniform?”, suggested her son, mistaking a Japanese borrowing from Bismark’s Germany for an oriental creation.

One advantage of living in a country where you cannot understand the language is that you are not distracted by other people’s chat. The English family in the procession through the Japonisme exhibition soon passed by in their quest for Japanese artefacts depicted in the paintings, as pleased with the screen print in Portrait d’Emile Zola as they were baffled by Pissarro’s Avenue de l’Opera, soleil, matinee d’hiver.

A guide to composition and perspective might have helped the English tourists understand the inclusion of works without any overt Japanese touch. Yet those three elements could not explain why several of the paintings and prints had been selected for this survey of works influenced by Japanese arts, design, crafts or architecture. In the main, the English family was right to look for exotic stuffage since the influence of Japanese rarely got beneath the surface, decorating oil paintings and houses alike, with the butterfly providing a signature for more than Whistler.

In the choice of palette, however, the relations between surface and structured could become more complex since the positioning of large passages of primary colours contributed to the flattening effects prominent in La chamber de van Gogh a Arles (1889). These borrowing high art were from prints associated with the popular arts of the low city with its theatres and water-trade, leaving what was called the refinement of Japanese culture to be taken upon by Western crafts and fashion houses. In crossing national orders, aspects within Japonisme moved to different sides of the class barrier in an exchange as over-determined as any conjured by Levi-Strauss.

The exhibition’s stopping around 1912 is perhaps why the folk arts that attracted Bernard Leach, and got taken up by what Orwell like to abuse as sandal wearing, vegetarians from the Fabian Society.

The exhibition has three segments: Japanese art seen in the West; Western responses in the form of exoticism; eclectic and modern borrowing which is by far the largest group, and hence a silent confession of how shallow European apprehension of Japanese culture remained.

After the US American “Black Ships” compelled Japan to trade with the West, Japan provided a fresh source for Orientalism whose racist assumptions have been dealt with y Edward Said. In Japan’s case, the language of prejudice still takes the political inflection of “exquisite”. That this exhibition is shared between Paris and Tokyo is one further sign that the trade imbalances which motivated Commodore Perry in 1853 are still alive, though promoting different alliances.

The number of US American entries is a homage to the leading role played by that empire in defeating Japan’s aggressive desire to keep itself free from imperial conquest. James McNeil Whistler has a prominent place and one that should help to expand the popular understanding of Impressionism away from a couple of Parisian cafes. Apart from a Winslow Homer study of ducks, the other US American are an inferior crop.

Although most of the European paintings are known from their holding museums, placing them in the context of Japonisme highlights different aspects, causing van Gogh’s L’Italienne, for example, to look as if had en plaited from bamboo.

Delightful as is the presentation of hitherto unperceived connections, there is also pleasure in having one’s prejudices confirmed, as happened with Monet’s La pie, Etratat, hiver (1868-9), which shows Money at the outset of his recognition that snow should be painted neither white nor dirty brown but allowed to reflect the colours of surrounding objects. How much of this discovery, for such it was, came from his study of Japanese prints of the snow remains to be investigated. In teaching himself to paint snow, Monet contributed to the now more familiar aspects of his oeuvre: the waterlillies began as ice drifts.

For Australian eyes, it was agreeable not to seek the perhaps predictable Conder silk fan, but instead Mortimer Menpes’s Devant une maison de the Japonaise, a tiny painting of a potter and a poster announcing Menpes’s New Bond Street exhibition in 1888. This trio catalysed the thought of what an entirely Australian Japonisme exhibition might look like. Ann Galbally has documented how the Heidelberg group took up the vogue for Nipponoiserie in Melbourne during the 1880s, almost as an advertising motif. Margaret Preston unlearnt her Munich treacle training by studying at the Musee Guimet and then by visiting Japan some thirty years later. Brett Whiteley has just made his first visit to Japan though Japan as an idea had long been present in his atmospherics. The impact on photography, crafts and fashion remains high.

How much were these influences mediated through European and US copies before they reached Australia? Even though Menpes and Preston went to the source, they could never shed all of their western ways of looking. Hence, Australian Japonisme presents a multi-layered puzzle. For instance, what link if any, was there between Ethel Spowers’s print of umbrellas and Manet’s La Queue devant la boucherie (1870-71)? Did Spowers take the image directly from a Japanese print? Or had she no more than vague memories of some such arrangement of circles and spokes when she set to work? The complexity of influences filtered through metropolitan centres adds one more challenge to studying Australia

Parallel questions could be put to Cezanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire which is made to look like Fuji-san and is surrounded by umbrella-like arcs.

Even where the details are open to dispute, the broad fact of Japanese influences on European art-making is well enough known in the West for this exhibition to provide more surprises in Tokyo than in Paris. The cultural exchange will be incomplete until a comparable survey shows how contact with Western art altered Japanese visual culture.

A recent centenary retrospective for Umeharo Ryuzaburo (1888-1986) not only demonstrated how great a painter he was but presented some issues in Modernism’s cross influences that were peculiar to Japan, most notably the depiction of the nude. Studies of the body, frequently undraped, have been vital in the development of occidental art, some would go further and say that the naked human form has provided the wellspring of Western painting as well as sculpture. Japan, despite its pornographic prints, possessed no such tradition. Kurodi Seiki caused a minor scandal in the 1890s when he exhibited the first full frontal nude in Tokyo. Even today, the pubic regions are censored in Japanese films. Men conceal their genitals in bath houses, perhaps as an incest prohibition from living at such close quarters.

Like Kuroda, Umehara studied in France where he attached himself to Renoir (another artist whose work is not considered to be a marker by the textbooks specializing in how Modernism moved from a Paris atelier to a Soho loft). Umehara’s struggles with two traditions can be traced in his depictions of the nude, male or female, now exposing genitals and public hair, then concealing them with a contortion of the torso. If Paris took something of perspective and colour form Japan, Japanese artists faced a more formidable task in adjusting to subject as much as to form and materials. Umehara’s genius flourished in the solution to such difficulties, placing him on a par with Matisse, and, to my eye, a superior. Those who see Umehara’s Peking paintings as his greatest phase rarely ask how he came to be there in the early 1940s, or why he had to leave. The impress of foreign conquest within Modernism is as variegated as it is recurrent. The US American imperial fist beneath the glove of soc-called International Art means that Umehara has not been high on James Mollison’s shopping list for the Australian National Gallery, but neither has he found wallspace for Mexicans.

That the artists included in this exhibition by no means exhaust the spread of Japonisme became clear as I exited through the museum’s permanent collection and saw Courbet’s Les Vagues (1870).