‘Looking East’ reveals Japan’s influence on Western art

All styles Japanese became the rage in Europe and North America after Japan, self-isolated for more than two centuries, opened its ports to world trade in 1853. In the art world, painters, printmakers and designers were swept up in this tide called japonisme, and were incorporating images of lanterns, kimonos and fans, as well as Japanese motifs and aesthetic sensibilities, into their work.

This trend receives comprehensive consideration in “Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, van Gogh, and Other Western Artists,” a traveling show from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at the Asian Art Museum.

By the late 1800s, artists had seen Japanese artwork at expos and import shops (including George T. Marsh’s establishment at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel), and many were collecting Japanese prints. Especially admired were prints of the ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) genre, which depicted colorful, risque and sensual subjects such as kabuki performers and courtesans. The bold colors, flat forms and geometric patterns in the works excited and inspired impressionist and postimpressionist artists seeking new ways to interpret the world.

Containing more than 170 art objects, “Looking East” pairs works by Western artists with works by Japanese artists to illustrate how Japanese styles and concepts affected the Western art movements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

In some of the juxtapositions, the Japanese influence is obvious; in others, it is more difficult to detect.

Either way, the exhibit contains some exquisite pieces.

“Kinryuzan Temple, Asakusa” (1856), a woodblock print by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige, features a red lantern that the artist presented prominently in the foreground. In the Western arena, “The Century, July 1895,” American artist Charles Herbert Woodbury’s lithographic poster, grabs the eye with its images of flat, floating lanterns.

Spotlighted European masters include Vincent van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints. “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art,” he wrote. The show includes his 1888 oil painting “Postman Joseph Roulin,” hung between two Japanese portraits of kabuki actors. The juxtaposition suggests a similarity in style and tone.

A somewhat crisper connection occurs with Claude Monet, who modeled aspects of his garden after Japanese designs. In his dazzlingly impressionistic “Lily Pond” (1900), the curve of a footbridge echoes that of the structure in Hiroshige’s “Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge” (1857).

In the decorative arts, a metal and glass letter rack from Art Nouveau giant Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Grapevine desk set (1900-1920) contains a pattern resembling that found on a Japanese textile stencil displayed nearby.

Also of note are Edvard Munch’s “Summer Night’s Dream” (1893), Otto Eckmann’s tapestry “Five Swans” (1897), Mary Cassatt’s “Maternal Caress” (1902), Paul Gauguin’s “Landscape With Two Breton Women” (1889), and an East-West pairing of early-20th-century woodblock prints of Yosemite vistas by Yoshida Hiroshi and William Rice.

IF YOU GO
Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Mondays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays; through Feb. 7
Admission: $15 to $25
Contact
: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

Anita Katz

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